PLOT: A disabled Marine inhabits a new body on an alien planet.
BOTTOM LINE: Jaw-dropping effects, dazzling 3-D and a hokey old story -- in other words, terrifically entertaining.
CAST: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
Some movies will forever stand as special-effects watersheds - 1933's "King Kong," 1977's "Star Wars," this decade's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy - but the real reason we remember them is because they told compelling stories about engaging characters.
"Avatar," James Cameron's first feature since his 1997 box-office crusher "Titanic," certainly has the effects. The movie's visuals - as might be expected with a reported budget of $230 million - are not just astounding. They are almost literally unbelievable.
Using live-action, motion-capture and computer animation, Cameron achieves unprecedented levels of detail and realism. Spaceships hover and robots march, yes, but "Avatar" also has creatures who breathe and smile and ache. Ever seen a computer-generated kiss that's actually steamy? You will now.
Cameron also is the first director to fully exploit 3-D technology. Most 3-D flicks are content to throw a few objects at the audience, but Cameron gives every shot an almost infinite depth of field. The story couldn't have cost Cameron too much - he wrote it. Years in the future, humans want to mine the planet Pandora for a valuable mineral. Standing in the way are the Na'vi, a primitive but anatomically enormous alien race.
Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-bound Marine who remotely manipulates a Na'vi body - an avatar - to infiltrate the tribe. Jake has pledged loyalty to the hawkish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), but that changes after he meets a blue-green beauty named Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).
You know exactly where this is heading, but every minute is vastly entertaining. "Avatar" may mark a whole new way of making movies - especially if you have a few hundred million to spend.