'Avatar'

Jake (Sam Worthington) prepares to undergo a harrowing Na'vi ritual, as his rival Tsu'Tey (Laz Alonso), a Na'vi warrior, looks on. (WETA)


Think of "Avatar" as "The Jazz Singer" of 3-D filmmaking. Think of it as the most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made. Think of it as the ultimate James Cameron production.

Whatever way you choose to look at it, "Avatar's" shock and awe demand to be seen. You've never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else.

Say what you like about writer-director Cameron -- and take it from me, people have -- he has always been a visionary in terms of film technology, as his pioneering computer-generated effects in "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" testify. He is not a director you want to underestimate, and with "Avatar's" story of futurist adventures on a moon called Pandora, he restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.

An extraordinary act of visual imagination, "Avatar" is not the first of the new generation of 3-D films, just as "Jazz Singer" was not the first time people had spoken on screen. But like the Al Jolson vehicle, it's the one that's going to energize audiences about the full potential of this medium.

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 not the forced gimmick it's often been, but a way to create an alternate reality and insert us so completely and seamlessly into it that we feel like we've actually been there, not watched it on a screen. If taking pleasure in spectacle and adventure is one of the reasons you go to the movies, this is something you won't want to miss.

A total immersion accomplishment like that did not come easily or for that matter, cheaply: 2,000 people worked on the project for three years and estimates of "Avatar's" budget put it in the neighborhood of $300 million. Cameron began thinking about the film 15 years ago and had to wait until either his company or someone else's invented the numerous technologies and cameras, often too complicated to describe easily, that turned his vision into a reality.

It's not only in 3-D that "Avatar" makes great strides, it's also in refining a technology called motion capture, which involves filming actors wearing sensors and then running the result through CGI computers. It's been used with varying degrees of success with Gollum's role in "The Lord of the Rings" and "Polar Express."

Cameron's version, which he's renamed "performance capture," has been used to take the inhabitants of Pandora, 10-foot-tall creatures with yellow cat's eyes, long tails and blue translucent skin called the Na'vi, and make them appear as completely real as the film's human characters.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cameron's visual accomplishments is that they are so powerful we're barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and obvious characterization that put such a dent in "Titanic."

Those qualities are here, all right, no mistake about that, but perhaps because of the power of the visuals, the strangeness of the science fiction world and the fact that many of the characters are Na'vi and not human, it doesn't feel like they matter as much. The film's romantic protagonists paradoxically end up feeling like creatures whose fates we care more about than we did Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's on the boat.

"Avatar" starts not on Pandora but right here on Earth, the year 2154 to be exact, and it throws a lot of plot at you very fast.

The planet is under ecological siege, which is why people are flying six light-years to Pandora to get their hands on a substance called (no kidding) Unobtanium that can make all the difference. The problem is that the nature-worshiping Na'vi live on Pandora, and they are not inclined to get out of the way.

In an attempt to make nice with the Na'vi, scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Cameron veteran Sigourney Weaver) has spearheaded a program that creates avatars, genetically engineered hybrids between human and Na'vi DNA, basically human minds in Na'vi bodies. These beings can breathe Pandora's toxic air and potentially open up interspecies lines of communication.

Paralyzed combat veteran Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington) gets to be one of the minds inside a Na'vi body because he has the same DNA as his murdered twin brother.

The twin was a scientist, but Jake is a gung-ho Marine and as such attracts the attention of Colonel Miles Quaritch, head of security for the human enclave (the always potent Stephen Lang), who tells him Pandora is so bad "if there is a hell, you might want to go there for R & R."

But once hothead Jake goes over the security barrier and enters Pandora proper, he and we can't help but be wowed by the intensity and specificity with which this world has been imagined by Cameron and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg.

With 500 kinds of plants and creatures including the rhino-like Hammerhead Titanothere and the delicate, jellyfish-type spore creatures called Atokirina, not to mention all variety of fierce flying beings, this is a place that is both indescribable and a little bit familiar.

For it turns out that Pandora has been shrewdly designed to be like Earth but different.

We have trees but not ones that are a thousand feet tall, we have mountains but not ones that hover in the air and are called "the legendary floating mountains of Pandora." And the markings of a rain forest frog have ended up on the back of a huge winged creature.

Once Jake's avatar gets into Pandora, he naturally meets up with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the most attractive woman on the planet who just happens to be the daughter of clan chief Eytukan (Wes Studi) and shaman Moat (CCH Pounder). "You have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid, ignorant, like a child," she says, summing up Jake nicely, and the race is on.

Jake ends up learning the Na'vi language (specifically created for the film by USC linguist Paul Frommer) and in general going native in ways he doesn't anticipate but everyone in the audience will.

"Avatar" is definitely not into breaking new narrative ground, but its ability to balance a familiar story with groundbreaking visuals is potent enough that even at an overly long 2 hours and 40 minutes this is a film people will be seeing more than once.

Perhaps most unexpected of all, "Avatar" is surprisingly enlivened by all the seeming contradictions it brazenly puts together.

At one and the same time this film is a boys' adventure tale with a major romantic element, an anti-imperialism movie that gets considerable mileage out of depicting invading armies, a neo-pagan, anti-technology film that touts the healing powers of nature but is up to its neck in the latest gizmos and gadgets.

It's a bundle of contradictions but James Cameron, clearly, wouldn't have it any other way.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com