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It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics, highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes, into a bunch of glowing, giddy teenagers, but that's precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar, James Cameron's extraordinary new sci-fi epic, screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking, a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.

Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation, Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora, the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film's futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka, an avatar), we're introduced to the planet's boundless, breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders, all created from scratch, rendered with uncanny fluidity, and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.

Occasionally, Avatar's technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline, which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi, Pandora's blue-skinned indigenous population, for an Earth-based mining consortium, Jake becomes enamored with the proud, peace-loving natives and their groovy, granola ways. Soon enough, he's joined their tribe, taken a smokin' hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana), and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.

The Bad Guys (Avatar's moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque, absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad, bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a bug-eyed, musclebound sadist who commands the mine's vast security force. As Pandora's Cortez and Pizzaro, they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures, deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like "blue monkeys" and "fly-bitten savages that live in a tree." Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare, obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.

Unobtanium? Really? It's that kind of ham-fisted, uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora's innumerable animal species), we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar, story and character development are treated as obstacles, pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.

And yet, despite its flaws, Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don't know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he's surely improved upon it. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.