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'Avatar' is a movie worth going to a theater to see

James Cameron's "Avatar" is a movie worth plunking down the extra cash to experience it in IMAX 3D.

One of the things I have loved about 2009 as a year of cinema isn't the wealth of great movies. After all, the pickings have been relatively slim, an aftershock of the 2008 writer's strike.

While 2009 has been a year of fewer releases and lesser films, it holds a special place in my heart for the return of movies as a unique theatrical experience. Anyone who gathered in a dark theater with 250 of their closest friends to jump and be scared at "Paranormal Activity" this fall understands this concept.

Along with the glut of 3D movies that can only be experienced fully in the digital cinema, 2009 has given us a reason to abandon our home entertainment system of Blu-ray players, 5.1 surround sound and 50-inch televisions so we can return the multiplex and not feel ripped off.

"Avatar" drives this concept home even more.

The wildly anticipated James Cameron science fiction epic may not be covering new territory from a story standpoint, and the acting isn't anything to write home about, but the theatrical experience of this film is unlike anything you will ever see... anywhere else... for years to come.

But let's look at the down side for a moment, the aforementioned story and acting. The movie follows Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine 150 years in the future who gets a unique chance to take the place of his twin brother in an off-world experience. A corporation is trying to mine a rare mineral (cheekily called "unobtainium") from the distant planet of Pandora, but they are facing resistance from the planet's indigenous people, an eight-foot-tall blue warrior race known as the Na'vi.

To interact with the population, scientists have grown genetically-altered human-Na'vi hybrids which can be possessed by their human DNA counterpart. Once Sully jacks into his Na'vi avatar, he is swept into their culture and discovers why they refuse to let the humans mine their land. Soon, a clash between cultures erupts.

This story is nothing new. It's been called "Dances with Wolves" in space, and that's exactly right. Cameron does little to pretend this isn't a not-so-subtle allegory of the Native Americans. He also uses themes we've seen before, playing out an explosive military sci-fi story with peacenik agendas.

Leading the cast is Sam Worthington, who is no Michael Biehn in terms of James Cameron's golden boy actors, but he serves the role well. Other characters include Sigourney Weaver as the Dian Fossey of the Na'vi and Stephen Lang as the piss-and-vinegar military leader intent on defeating the natives. The acting's not bad, but no one rises to the top here. Such is the case with most of Cameron's movies, after all.

But the reason to see "Avatar," and the reason why I consider it to be one of the best films of the year, isn't for the story or character. It's to immerse yourself in the experience. Don't just see it. See it in 3D. But don't just see it in digital 3D. See it in IMAX 3D. This presentation is easily one of the most spectacular things you will see on the big screen.

Using photorealism and cutting-edge computer graphics, Cameron manages to create a virtual world that your mind no longer recognizes as computer-generated. This is some of the best animation I've ever seen, with an attention to detail that is simply staggering.

Cameron is a master of pacing and action, which is why the film's 160-minute running time doesn't seem laborious or long. There are plenty of brilliantly crafted action scenes throughout the film, including a mind-blowing dragon-riding sequence and a unprecedented 20-minute action climax that will leave you breathless.

I have been a critic for a long time, and I have been extremely reluctant to say something as cliched as this, but Cameron's new film warrants the words: If you see only one movie in the theaters this year, see "Avatar." And spend the extra money for IMAX 3D. You will not be disappointed.