RATING |

WHEN A TREE falls in a forest, and James Cameron is there to direct, it definitely makes a sound.

An earsplitting sound. Of course, in "Avatar," the tree is 500 feet high and felled by missiles launched from a flock of attack helicopters, and it's a sacred tree whose roots are connected to the souls of the forest's indigenous peoples, whose cries of pain are entwined with the noise of the bombs and shattering wood.

So some noise is to be expected.

But the OTHER sound you hear in "Avatar," the sound heard round the cinema world, is that the brave new 3D, computer-generated world that Hollywood tech-heads have been promising is finally here.

Yeah, I know, you don't believe it, and I didn't either.

I went to "Polar Express" and "Beowulf" and "Christmas Carol," movies that were supposed to herald the great changes to come, and I just wasn't seeing it. Instead, I was seeing pallid, creepy-looking people whose eyes had all of the expression you see in the fish at Reading Terminal Market.

Even breakthrough achievements, like Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, had obvious flaws. There was something wrong about the way light fell on his skin, a problem that dated all the way back to CGI prototypes like "Jumanji."

If you watch "Avatar," in 3D, you finally see the potential. You get why so many smart guys - Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson, Jeffrey Katzenberg - have promised that this is a big part of the future of movies.

In "Avatar" Cameron creates an Oz that's as tactile and tangible as if it were made of real materials and real tissue. For filmgoers, it's an encounter with a new world - no doubt why Cameron wraps it around a sci-fi story of mankind's 2154 encounter with an exotic new planet.

He sets "Avatar" on the planet Pandora, where mankind has sent teams of soldiers, scientists, anthropologists and corporate marauders on a mission to mine a precious ore. They are to extract this ore with, or without, the cooperation of the native peoples, the Na'vi (half human, half cat, 10 feet tall).

The contingent's businessmen and military types are itching for confrontation, while the scientists and anthropologists (led by Sigourney Weaver) are looking for a peaceful joint venture, and hope to achieve this by using the future-world technology of the avatar.

The scientists engineer, incubate and grow creatures that have the physical characteristics of the Na'vi, blended with the critical DNA of individual humans. A human can mind-link with his Na'vi avatar via remote location, and roam the exotic world of Pandora as a native.

Cameron adds pathos to this angle by making his title avatar a paraplegic soldier, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who regains mobility only while living inside his Na'vi avatar.

Jake's military mission is to infiltrate the Na'vi, kicking intel back to his slightly bonkers military commander (Stephen Lang), who's looking for strategic advantages in an eventual attack.

Jake, though, becomes a double agent. His sympathies for the peaceful, deceptively advanced Na'vi grow as his faith in mankind's destructive mission on Pandora begins to diminish (it's a well-worn sci-fi plot, but effective). And he falls for a Na'vi girl (Zoe Saldana).

There's an obvious environmental theme here, and a political one that's more clumsily handled. Cameron is evidently no great fan of the Iraq war, and makes several pointed (and dated) references to it.

Setting politics aside, this is a bad artistic decision. He spends $250 million and considerable creative energy selling us - successfully - on the illusion that we're inside a wondrous new world.

He then drags us back to present-day reality with oafish invocations of "shock and awe." Also, in 2154, I think it's time for gung-ho marines to stop saying "Get some!" when they spray the enemy with machine-gun fire.

But I don't think these flaws outweigh Cameron's achievement here. His new 3-D cameras and computer modeling technology are the first to blend computer generated marvels with real human performance. He uses these tools to augment what is, and always will be, cinema's greatest technological advance - the close-up. That's where the emotional life of a movie will always reside.

Behind the actors is a richly imagined digital world of plants and animals and geography, one that restores the motion pictures' stature as a place of "wow" spectacle.

And reminds us that in the movies we're all avatars, mind-linked to a realm of imagination.