What do you know? James Cameron really is "king of the world."
He invents a world and takes us into it in his visually stunning and utterly immersing 3-D epic, Avatar. The Pandora, a remote alien moon of Cameron's imagination, has trees the size of skyscrapers, gargantuan beasties and critters of every description.
And blue alien supermodels. How else do you describe the 10-foot-tall Na'vi --- the lithe, loin-clothed, topless and tailed inhabitants of this world, the "indigenous people" whom Earth-based mineral developers and their military-mercenaries want to displace? The Na'vi are EveryNatives, at one with the animals, hugging the trees, living in peace. Until the humans show up.
Cameron blends live action and live actors to create the most-convincing digital people the movies have ever seen in telling the story of a paraplegic "dumb grunt" Marine (Sam Worthington) who is given an artificially grown alien surrogate (an avatar) and takes that body to live among the Na'vi. His mission is to persuade them either to move away from exploitable land or to discover the best ways to destroy them. His guide among them is the surprisingly alluring daughter (Zoe Saldana, digitized) of the chief (Wes Studi). Guess where that’s going?
Worthington's Jake Sully narrates the adventure, how he was chosen for this job, and his first experiences of using a body that has all working parts and is tall, athletic and blue. His reluctant human handler for the mission is the gruff scientist (Sigourney Weaver) who "wrote the book, literally wrote the book" on the Na'vi. She, too, has an avatar in which she ventures out to visit the Na'vi. But her purposes are peaceful, or as peaceful as any effort to "study" and "educate" a native people can be. In contrast, the corporate mine boss (Giovanni Ribisi) and his military commander (a fearsome Stephen Lang) want only to get the natives out of the way so that they can get their hands on that rare mineral, "Unobtanium."
Did I mention how stupid Avatar often is?
Cameron borrows from many sources to create his original work. There are hints of Native American epic, war epics, and peace and ecology sermon films in this, including Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars and the little-seen "stop those bulldozers" cartoon Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
But Cameron's imagination has limits. There are Pandoran versions of horses (reptilian, with six legs), wolves (reptilian, and they whimper) and rhinos (reptilian, and they stampede). The Na'vi's connection to their planet is literal, as they plug their ponytails into whatever animal they need to ride and thus "become one" with it. They are Apaches as an Apple application.
Avatar is stuffed with examples of Bugs Bunny physics --- mountains that float in the air, people who can leap off plummeting machines and land safely, altering Newton's Laws of Motion.
It's 150 years in the future, but Marine slang hasn't changed a bit, guns haven't changed much, and men and women fight with slightly advanced versions of the military's Osprey helicopter.
The whole package could have been the most ambitious anime action cartoon ever exported from Japan --- broad characters, corny dialogue, logical lapses, spectacular locations and fantastical creatures.
But Cameron, sparing no expense, sucks us into that world and entertains us for most of the two hours, 42 minutes. As dumb entertainments go, it's exponentially smarter, easier to follow and more ambitious than Transformers. The new A Christmas Carol looks like stick-figure doodling compared with Avatar. As visionary tour guide, Cameron has no equal. Predictable story, cliched dialogue and logical lapses aside, he's still the man we want leading us into his Pandora's box.