In Dances With Wolves (1990), it's Kevin Costner's U.S. Cavalry officer who insinuates himself into the world of the Lakota Sioux. In Avatar, it's Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a member of the "Jarhead Clan," who learns the ways of the Na'vi - a blue-skinned, NBA-tall race of humanoids living in paradise on the planet Pandora. The Na'vi, who resemble buff, pointy-eared runway models, live in a lush rain forest teeming with exotic beasts, including those aforementioned banshees - flying reptile-like creatures that Na'vi warriors must bond with in a rite of passage.
And it's at that point in Cameron's two-hour, 41-minute marvel - when Sully's Na'vi avatar and his female friend Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) take to the air, astride winged banshees - that Cameron's long-borning baby really kicks in. It's like a runner hitting the Zone: All of a sudden, the movie, with its elaborate motion-capture technology (real actors' movements and gestures turned into computer-generated images), breaks into a new dimension - even if you're not watching in 3-D. (Avatar is being released in multiple formats: 3-D, Real-D, IMAX, and lowly, old-fashioned 2-D.)
Set in 2154, Avatar begins with Sully, who is paralyzed from the waist down (there have been military conflagrations in Nigeria and Venezuela, if you're keeping track), set to replace his dead twin brother in an avatar program on faraway Pandora. Climb into a pod, hook up the circuitry, and let your mind and body enter a Na'vi alter ego.
It's a last-ditch effort led by Dr. Grace Augustine (a butt-smokin' Sigourney Weaver) and her group of science nerds to befriend "the indigenous" with these human/Na'vi hybrids. If they fail, the private military force led by Col. Miles Quaritch (a cartoonish Stephen Lang), will start killing the Na'vi and defoliating their Eden.
Why? Because they're sitting on mounds of Unobtainium (sounds like something from Rocky and Bullwinkle!) - a mineral vital to Earth's energy needs. Giovanni Ribisi is the squirrelly industrialist overseeing the rape and pillage.
Avatar isn't deep: It has an obvious antiwar, tree-hugging message, and its characters are literally and figuratively archetypes. But Worthington, in both his human and Na'vi incarnations, makes the transition from warmonger to peacenik more than believable. One of Avatar's many brilliant strokes is to have its hero in a wheelchair: When his avatar-self starts running barefoot through the jungles, as agile as a cat, it's exhilarating and liberating - for both Sully and the audience.
(Early on in Dances With Wolves, Costner's Lt. Dunbar is in danger of having his leg amputated - go figure.)
Cameron is not a filmmaker to shy away from spectacle and the gizmos to deliver it. The first two Terminators, Aliens (with Weaver), The Abyss, and, of course, Titanic, all cost plenty, but with the exception of The Abyss, they sold more than enough tickets to make up for the expenditure. Whether Avatar recoups its outsize production and marketing outlays is a topic for the business wags to mull.
For the folks who plunk down their dollars (and pick up the plastic 3-D glasses), Avatar delivers. Combining beyond-state-of-the-art moviemaking with a tried-and-true storyline and a gamer-geek sensibility - not to mention a love angle, an otherworldly bestiary, and an arsenal of 22d-century weaponry - the movie quite simply rocks.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/