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'Avatar': Big-Picture Visions, Stirringly Realized

You've never experienced anything like Avatar, and neither has anyone else. Its shock-and-awe tactics restore a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.

The year is 2154, and Planet Earth is in big trouble — big enough that people are going all the way to Pandora, six light-years away. The Na'vi — blue-skinned, 10-foot (computer-generated) creatures who live on the exotic moon — are not happy about that, which is why the speech the head of human security gives to his forces sounds less like a warning than a death sentence.

Listening to that speech is partially paralyzed combat veteran Jake Sully. He's come to Pandora to become the human mind inside an avatar — a genetically engineered hybrid between humans and the Na'vi. But once hothead Jake crosses the security barrier from the heavily protected base to enter Pandora proper, he can't help but be wowed by the vividness of the fantastical creatures there — flying dragons, anvil-headed rhinos and such.

You'll be wowed too: The creative intensity on display in Avatar is so potent, we're barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and characterization that put such a dent in Titanic. Those qualities are here, no mistake about that, but because of the nature of the story, they don't matter as much.

That's because to see Avatar is to feel like you understand filmmaking in three dimensions for the first time. In Cameron's hands, 3-D is no forced gimmick. It's a way to create an alternate reality and insert us so seamlessly into it that we feel like we've actually been there.

Avatar may be the most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made. But if spectacle and adventure are reasons you go to the movies, Avatar is something you won't want to miss. (Recommended)

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Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.