All I can say about Avatar right now is the most cliched, fanboyish thing you can: it felt like movie magic. James Cameron didn't have to do much to wow the crowd when he strode into Hall H this afternoon- he got a standing ovation just for making it to the stage-- but he wasn't just in it to woo the fans and the 3D-committed. With Avatar, he's creating an action sci-fi movie like all the others he's made, one in which story and technology work side by side.

The magical part of Avatar, believe it or not, wasn't the technology, or the fact that the avatar and alien characters look so lifelike, or the bioluminescent forest on the planet of Pandora that is like nothing, animated or real, you've ever seen. The excitement for me at least came when I began piecing together the story, realizing that Cameron didn't just create this faraway world as a playground for technology, but as a way to start his narrative all over again with one of the most basic stories we have: the Western. Humans are settling in a land full of creatures they're unable, or unwilling, to understand, and it takes one man who straddles that border to figure out a way to find peace.

Maybe I should start from the beginning, piecing together the story so far as I can tell it based on the series of scenes we saw. We start with a classic military initiation scene that would have been perfectly at home in Aliens, in which Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) warns the new recruits about the dangers of the planet they're working on, and promises that, though his job is to protect them, he'll fail at that job. Also showing up on base is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), apparently a new recruit like any other except for the fact that he's in a wheelchair. That'd make him pretty worthless but for the avatar technology that Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her staff have developed-- Jake's brain can be transplanted into an avatar figure, a hybrid of humans and the Na'vi, the native inhabitants of the planet who are lithe, blue creatures that you kind of have to see to believe.

Once Jake is implanted into his avatar body, able to use his legs for the first time in presumably years, he runs a little wild, swatting things with his new tail and breaking out of the operating room before he's allowed. Later we see him out in the field with the avatar of Weaver's character and Joel David Moore's, and the bunch of them have to protect themselves from a series of horrible beasts (a kind of rhinoceros-triceratops hybrid, and something else I can't really describe) before Jake is, I'm guessing, separated from the pack entirely.

That's where he meets up with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi who saves him from a series of charging beasts and then gives him a very hard time for not understanding why they'd attack him. It's definitely a Pocahontas "Colors of the Wind" moment as Jake and Neytiri walk through the bioluminescent forest, where the ground lights up beneath their feet and every plant is more gigantic and colorful than the last. But Cameron knows what he's doing; it's clear just from a brief scene that Neytiri is more than just an enlightened Native American figure, and she's definitely not all that interested in sparing Jake's life, as we see in a later scene in which Jake has to train a dragon.

Yes, he trains a dragon-- or some variation on the species, in a scene that's as visually stunning as it is narratively familiar-- the newcomer proving himself to the tribe. And that, again, is what I loved so much about the Avatar scenes, how-- even though they weren't connected to each other-- they give a strong sense of a narrative that we thought had become overfamiliar. Clearly the Quaritch character, with his sense that Na'vi are bloodthirsty villains, has a lesson to learn. Clearly Jake, the brash American figure immortalized by the likes of Michael Biehn in Aliens and even Titanic's Jack Dawson, is set for an almighty awakening. And I have no proof of this, of course, but I'm pretty certain it'll be more than a simple "humans learn to love the earth" parable.

I just wrote a lot about the story and didn't really get into the visuals at all, and also haven't mentioned the press conference-- featuring Cameron, Weaver and Saldana-- that followed. I guess we'll have to get to that later. But while I went into Avatar knowing that the visuals would blow me away-- and also knowing there would be no real way to describe it-- I wasn't quite expecting to feel moved by a story that I barely understand. Lots more to come on Avatar, but basically I've just spent 1000 words telling you to believe the hype. Avatar will be worth it.

Check out the first ever official image from Avatar right here.

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