As I had noted in my preview last month, Avatar looked like it was cobbled together from the plots of various older movies like Dances With Wolves, Return of the Jedi(primitive tribes overcome evil, more advanced oppressors), and Cameron's own Aliens (arrogant and cocky Marines get more than they bargained from resourceful aliens). And folks, that's exactly what happens. No surprises whatsoever.

And yes, the director does give us spectacle rarely seen in less ambitious films-Cameron knows how to fill up the screen with giant bulldozers and soaring mega-trees. There are moments of visual beauty in his evocation of the alien world Pandora and knowing that the Na Vi, the 12-foot blue-skinned dragon-riding natives are achieved through the greatest advance yet in motion capture technology is indeed a wondrous technical achievement.

But it goes back to the story-Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine arrives on Pandora to join the Avatar program wherein his brain will be connected to a cloned body of a native, his titular avatar.,From the time we learn that this will allow him to infiltrate and win the hearts and minds of the tribe to sell them on the need to move away from a prized deposit of a rare mineral, we know who the good guys really are.

When Jake gains the confidence of the tribe through a coming of age training and initiation process, we know it's only a matter of time after he starts walking in another alien's moccasins that his heart and mind will be with the natives. Thus it is that Jake becomes the race's leader against the armored might of the invaders. The last third of the movie is the final confrontation between the Na Vi led by Jake and the Marines led by the malevolent Col. Quaritch.

Yes, the soldiers are supposed to be former Marines who now serve as security for yet another evil corporation, but the military bearing, dress and ethos of the boys in green clearly presents itself as the American military, the liberal stereotype of rabid baby killers dominant since the Vietnam war.

Of course as long as you are pitting stereotypical noble savages against stereotypical bad soldiers you have to have a hidden advantage for the natives that will give them a way to achieve what has never happened in history when a larger and more powerful force has invaded the land of a primitive people-the Na Vi hold to a pantheistic belief that connects them-literally-to nature. The blue-skinned aliens have braided hair which conceals fine tendrils which bond with the counterparts on their six-legged horse and dragon creatures. The people worship a nature goddess Ewya, which is basically Mother Earth, er, Pandora the spirit that connects all life on the planet. (Possible spoiler alert:) Their sacred trees are large willows with glowing white noodle-like branches and leaves that contain the memories and voices of their ancestors. When you die, your energy returns to the earth and is taken up by the trees in a Circle of Life recycling process. Let's just say that you don't want to make Momma angry.

Colonel Quaritch and his corporate superior plan a "shock and awe" campaign on the native in order to fight "terror with terror." I tried but couldn't find a relevant subtext of the story with anything going on today. Nobody can with intellectual coherence present current US military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan as remotely resembling the assault on Pandora. Of course there's the environmental sermon: Earth is a ecologically devastated brown husk, apparently so because the nations didn't sign the Kyoto treaty or act in Copenhagen, or do anything to stop global warming back in the 21st century, we've now gone on to destroying other planets. Being a big Hollywood director means being able to visualize your most exaggerated fears for profit.

The film is bound to stir controversy on any of these fronts. The spiritual one has already begun with Ross Douthat's New York Times essay on Hollywood pantheism. It got a sharp retort from blogger David Disalvo. Another blogger is bugged by the long time pattern of Hollywood films featuring white guys who go native and wind up leading the people of color against their enemies.

With a record-breaking December opening, it remains to be seen whether the film with all the aforementioned elements, will have anything like the sustained box office of his last film, Titanic. My hunch, probably not close, at least in the US. The international market, for whom this film, with its nasty take on the American military and New Age feel, should eat this right up and it's oversees take is already significantly larger than the domestic by more than double. Avatar should be seen if only for its technical achievement as long as you don't connect with any of the more questionable elements of its ideas.

Posted by: Alex Wainer