December 17, 2009 at 8:32 am

Tom Long: Film Review: 'Avatar' -- GRADE: A+

Review: 'Avatar' sets a new standard for blockbusters

A Na'vi warrior races into battle on a Thanator, a fearsome panther-like creature native to Pandora. (20th Century Fox)

I have seen the future of movies, and it is "Avatar."

No, that's a bit much, let's try...

This changes everything.

Again, a bit much. How about...

"Avatar" raises the bar. By about 10 feet.

Writing negative movie reviews is easy. Writing positive movie reviews is hard. Which means writing a review of "Avatar" is going to be really, really hard. Because James Cameron's alien world epic "Avatar" may well be the future of movies, it might change everything and it sure as heck raises the bar by at least 10 feet.

It is a dazzling spectacle that makes virtually all other special-effects blockbusters seem like awkward toddlers. In imagination, vision and execution suddenly every other action film looks like it was drawn with crayons.

Beyond that, though, it's also a rock-solid space yarn, revisiting themes -- man vs. nature, our self-destructive instincts, corporate malfeasance -- that Cameron explored in his sci-fi classics "The Terminator," "Aliens" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

And don't despair, romantics, there's more than a bit of "Titanic" love in this otherworld saga as well.

Of course, the love is between giant blue creatures with tails. But those giant blue creatures come to feel as real as any characters you've ever seen on film.

And that is the great accomplishment of "Avatar": It immerses you in a fantasy world like no other film ever has just by the sheer visceral power and beauty of its images. Seen in 3-D, as it should be seen, it surrounds you like no other movie has been able to. Which means that when Cameron turns the action jets on, this thing rocks like AC/DC at full volume in 1979.

In the future, man has set up a colony on the distant planet of Pandora to mine a valuable mineral found there.

Unfortunately, the greatest source of the mineral lies beneath a large village of the planet's indigenous species, a race of blue giants called the Na'vi who live at peace in their forest, at one with the environment.

A scientist (Sigourney Weaver) has devised a way to integrate with the blue folk. By blending Na'vi DNA with human DNA, she has developed big blue bodies that remain empty of consciousness. When a human brain is remotely plugged into one of these "avatars," it takes over the body.

Thus a wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) becomes whole again. And he is sent to blend with the Na'vi, to learn their weaknesses, and to bring what he learns back to Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and his corporate boss (Giovanni Ribisi), who plan to wipe out the village.

But Sully soon finds himself taken with the Na'vi, and especially with his guide within the tribe, the wondrous Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, in certainly the best CGI performance ever). And his faith in the mission begins to crumble.

Yes, this is a movie in which humans are the bad guys and the aliens are the good guys. But Cameron makes sure to allow that personal salvation transcends race or species.

There are some minor quibbles to be had here, especially in the film's opening moments as characters are laying out the premise. A voiceover might have worked better than awkward dialogue. And a Na'vi group prayer-chant thing veers too close to feeling like a bad "Matrix" moment.

But such concerns last scant seconds as the wonder of Pandora, the beauty of the Na'vi and the story's momentum sweep you up and away.

As much as "Avatar" is a singular achievement, it also brings hope to our blockbuster age of film, where big, loud and usually dumb action movies dominate the business. It reminds us that big, loud and great is possible, while breaking exciting new ground in terms of the sensory possibilities of film.

Audiences want event movies, there's no avoiding that. "Avatar" sets a new standard for those events.

Hopefully the future does indeed begin here. And maybe this does actually change everything.

One thing's for sure. The bar has now been raised very, very high.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879

Sam Worthington, from left, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver and Joel ... (20th Century Fox)