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Weak Script? No One Will Even Care

With the game-changing, magnificent visual spectacle that is Avatar (3 stars out of 4), writer/director James Cameron can be crowned king of the virtual world.

But he still needs to hire a screenwriter. For all the grandeur and technical virtuosity of the mythical 3-D universe Cameron labored for years to perfect, his characters are one-dimensional, rarely saying anything unexpected.

But for much of the movie, that hardly matters. The scenes in Pandora - a planet with an Earth-like environment - are so breathtaking that the narrative seems almost beside the point.

The first sight of this exotic paradise may rival the seminal scene in The Wizard of Oz, when the Technicolor munchkin world first comes into focus. It's a jaw-dropping introduction to the tropical world of blue-skinned, golden-eyed aliens. Their lush jungle home is vibrantly hued, with flora and fauna, fabulous winged creatures, flying spirits that look like wispy sea anemones and floating mountains.

Cameron seamlessly melds live action, computer-generated animation and 3-D technology. The motion-capture technique that dazzled in Lord of the Rings reaches a new level of proficiency, enabling more nuance in facial expressions.

But why diminish all this with clunky dialogue?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine, now in a wheelchair, recruited to Pandora. Humans are there at the behest of a powerful corporation mining a mineral that could solve the energy crisis on ravaged Earth.

Pandoran air is toxic to Earthlings. So scientists create a program in which human "drivers" are connected to avatars, bodies created in the lab that look like the natives of Pandora, called Na'vi, and can survive in the environment. Human DNA is mixed with Pandoran DNA, and these hybrid beings are sent on reconnaissance.

When Jake emerges in avatar form, he can not only walk but also run and leap, and his exuberance is infectious. Jake soon meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), one of the 10-foot-tall Na'vis, who saves him from rampaging creatures.

Cameron's films are noteworthy for strong female characters. Sigourney Weaver, in an evolution of her role as Ripley in 1979's Alien, plays the gruff scientist who runs the avatar program. She comes to respect Jake as he grows to admire the peaceful and spiritual Na'vi.

An epic battle to drive the Na'vi from their land tests Jake's allegiance. At nearly three hours, the movie grows sluggish, especially during the protracted battle scene.

Even so, Cameron has fashioned a breathtaking Eden. But his paradise is almost lost without characters and dialogue as imaginative as their setting. (Rated PG-13 for warfare, sensuality and language. Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes. Opens at midnight tonight in some theaters and Friday nationwide.)

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