In 2154, paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is enlisted into a special scientific project on the distant planet of Pandora. Jake’s mission is to integrate himself into the indigenous population and convince them to relocate, so Earth’s military can mine the precious minerals located beneath their home. The Na’Vi, however, are a proud race of 9-foot tall blue mammals, and to get close to them Jake must live and breathe through an artificially-created avatar body that he operates mentally.

On the surface, Jake is working with Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) to reach a diplomatic solution with the locals, but he has also been recruited by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to relay information about the aliens’ numbers and defensive capabilities back to the military to facilitate their inevitable insurgence.

The more time he spends with the Na’Vi, however, the more Jake begins to understand the chemical and spiritual bond they share with everything on Pandora, and that the human presence is only disrupting that careful equilibrium. His blossoming relationship with feisty female warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) also complicates matters, leading Jake to reassess his allegiances.

It has been twelve years since writer/director James Cameron’s Titanic took the world by storm, but now he is back, with a new vision, even bigger and more audacious. Every moment of Avatar’s 162-minute running time is crammed full of spectacular alien landscapes and ferocious creatures, floating mountain ranges and impossibly dense rainforests, brimming with bizarre beasts that crash through the undergrowth or soar dizzyingly overhead. The camera is forever sending the audience spiralling over precipices into the vast emptiness of space and burying them deep within the luminescent glow of an alien jungle. By the time the credits roll, you’ll believe you really have visited another world.

As with Cameron’s previous film, a love story is at the heart of Avatar, a forbidden romance between two creatures from different worlds. The combination of nuanced performances and computer-generated effects realistically brings the Na’Vi to life, making them sympathetic and even attractive, despite their strange appearance. But it wouldn’t be a James Cameron film without excessive cutting-edge military hardware, and here they pack more firepower than ever before.

The final hour of the film is a relentless barrage of shock and awe as Quaritch unleashes the full might of his armed forces against Jake and the Na’Vi in a battle to the death for domination of Pandora. It is an exhilarating, yet exhausting experience, and when seen in 3D on a 40-foot high IMAX screen, threatens to overwhelm its audience.

Beneath the hugely impressive visuals and technical wizardry, the plot of Avatar is little more than Dances With Wolves in space. There are broad analogies to America’s War on Terror and foreign policy in general, as well as allusions to the treatment of Native Americans and the obvious environmental messages. Many characters are little more than stock stereotypes – Giovanni Ribisi’s company man is almost moronically narrow-minded and ignorant – and the final resolution is entirely predictable.

Despite all of this, Avatar is never less than completely entertaining and the simplicity of the underpinning drama frees the audience to sit back and marvel at what is on screen. While it will undoubtedly lose much of its power when it makes the transition to Blu-ray, seen on the biggest screen in town Avatar is nothing short of astonishing.

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