Cameron dances with wolves to the $$$

Over $1 billion in ticket sales later, “Avatar” is the fantasy movie phenomenon that won’t crash or burn. In fact, it’s still exploding.

You’ve heard it all before: American soldiers in a foreign territory, hired to protect a corporation from the encroachment of indigenous peoples who make difficult the exploitation of their natural resources. It’s familiar, relevant and totally predictable. Even the paranormal cross-species romance fraught with danger and deception has been done lately. (“Twilight,” anyone?)

But when the bioluminescent jungles, prehistoric creatures and intelligent plants flash by, the familiarity recedes. And that’s not to mention the giant, blue aliens that inhabit Pandora, the foreign moon upon which these silly little humans have descended like locusts. James Cameron sets a scene that screams with imagination, damnit. The story may not be original, he seems to admit, but the visuals sure as hell will be. Happy to be entertained, we quickly accept the sacrifice.

“Avatar” is a love story, a tale of redemption and a political reminder. It is not subtle in its message of environmentalism or anti-imperialism or the circle of life. The script is full of clichéd moments that are tolerable because it’s a big movie with a big name, and we all love a good cliché. (“You’re not in Kansas anymore,” barks the scarred, grizzled and over-muscled military commander to the new recruits when they first arrive on Pandora. No duh, chief; they’ve been cryogenically frozen for over five years, and they’re wearing oxygen masks to breathe.) But who really cares about details like predictable lines or stereotypical characters when the movie is such a guilty, but rich pleasure?

“Avatar” is a blockbuster hit designed to captivate, enthrall and dizzy the senses, using the full force of modern technology. And in the end, that story — the story of futuristic action and computer-generated creatures and impossible landscape (hello, floating mountains!) — is the story that thrills most of all.

It’s most thrilling for those viewing it in Cameron’s hyped 3-D format. I first saw it in just two measly dimensions, in a dinky small-town theater. Those pterodactyl-things they ride? Yeah, they were nice. And the jungle at night, the way the ground glows as the aliens spring lightly through it? That was really neat too. It was an entertaining fantasy film, to be sure … but it lacked the element of “epic” that I had expected.

Then I saw it in a big theater, feeling classy in the Ray Ban look-alike 3-D glasses they give you these days. That’s when I understood what all the fuss was about. The characters step into the jungle, and suddenly you are peering through succulent palm leaves that nearly slap you in the face. Here’s the secret: instead of figures simply jumping out of the screen, “Avatar” allows viewers to enter their world. The action shocks, and the details awe. The issue, of course, is visual fatigue. I recommend a supply of eye drops and a regimen of carefully timed blinks.

Yet, the 3-D works. By the end of “Avatar,” we sympathize with the giant, blue Na’vi aliens, while the insignificant humans and their big war machines become pitiful and oddly foreign.

OK, so that might be a stretch. But in an industry searching for that good old movie magic, where our eyes glaze at the usual explosions, effects and vistas, the 3-D helps to transport us into something unexpected. The “Avatar” obsession will persist because Cameron has produced a movie composed entirely of tried-and-true cinematic ingredients (Aliens! Monsters! Love! War!) The reinvention of a classic in a new dimension is the welcome change we’ve thirsted for.

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