Avatar ★★★★★

Tremendously engrossing and visually spectacular, "Avatar" is an immensely satisfying cinematic experience and a technical triumph on every level. Writer/director James Cameron has made a rousing science-fiction epic that is greater than the sum of its parts, and his masterful storytelling is infused with passion. Thanks in part to its visceral impact and genuine emotional core, this motion picture really pushes the right buttons. Despite its 162-minute running time, the film never feels too long: one does not mind spending a lot of time experiencing the world of Pandora.

This movie should definitely be seen on as large a screen as possible. Computer-animated images are seamlessly integrated with live-action footage: the Na’vi, just like everything else on Pandora, come across as completely real. James Horner’s sweeping score features few immediately memorable pieces, but it nevertheless serves its purpose very well.

Unsurprisingly, the big action sequences, such as the destruction of the Hometree of the Omaticaya clan and the climactic battle, are noteworthy. At one point in the film, when they approach the Hallelujah Mountains, Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) says with a grin to the awestruck passengers on her airship, "You should see your faces"—that is almost a breaking-the-fourth-wall moment because the viewer is likely to react in the same way as the passengers do. The scene in which Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) desperately tries to wake up Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the protagonist, when danger approaches in the form of a bulldozer reminds me somewhat of the "Earth Song" sequence in "This Is It". The final image provides the perfect connection to the opening scene proper and is positively pulse-quickening.

The 3D technology is employed to add depth to the proceedings rather than being used as a gimmick, but that does not mean that the 2D version is inferior to the 3D version. I have seen both the 2D version and the 3D version of the movie (in that order), and while the latter certainly makes for an impressive experience, the third dimension is not necessary for the viewer to become immersed in the film.

The film’s detractors criticize it for such things as its stereotypical characters, its familiar and predictable story, its clichés, and its not-so-subtle political messages about the environment and colonialism and war (for example, the movie contains the line "When people are sitting on shit you want, you make them your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it"). While I readily admit that they have a point, the strengths of "Avatar"—the expert storytelling, its enthralling power, its emotional heft, its jaw-droppingly impressive visuals—overshadow its weaknesses by a wide margin, rendering them insignificant and easy to overlook. The movie emotionally manipulates the viewer, but one does not mind it one bit.

The casting is spot on. Worthington and Sigourney Weaver (who plays Dr. Grace Augustine) deliver solid performances. Saldana makes Neytiri into a character that one cares about and sympathizes with, while Stephen Lang is delightfully villainous in the role of Colonel Miles Quaritch. I do not applaud her acting in "Fast & Furious" and the TV series "Lost", but I must concede that Rodriguez is perfectly cast here as Trudy.