The thing about Avatar is that it's not really a movie. It is, of course, but applying normal movie rules to it seems terribly inappropriate: yeah, the characters are thin stereotypes and the dialogue is wooden when it isn't worse, and the plot is every "soldier learns to respect and love the people he was sent to destroy" story ever made. But, but, that's not what Avatar "is" - that's all just sort of the dressing that they used to make it a narrative feature, on account of studios don't spend $350 million on experimental landscape pictures. But if you asked me, the line of descent that ends in James Cameron's eighth film as director - his first in a dumbfounding twelve years, following a pair of undersea IMAX documentaries, a failed TV show, and some other odds and ends in the time since Titanic made him briefly the most powerful filmmaker in the world - is not from such other feel-goody "learn to embrace the noble savage" pictures as Dances with Wolves, but image- and editing-driven tone poems like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, though I should stop myself from going too far in that direction by admitting that the music in Avatar is pretty much just as tepid and awful as you'd expect for something composed by James Horner, his third and, honestly, best collaboration with the director, not that it's saying very much.

But I come to praise Avatar, not to bury it; in fact, to praise the shit out of it, as one of the most wholly imaginative movies that I think I've ever seen. Ever. Forgive me, but it's the kind of movie that lends itself much too easily to hyperbole.

In the year 2154, a marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who lost the use of his legs in some unspecified spinal accident, is given a great chance to ship off to the distant planet of Pandora, where he will replace his late twin brother in an usual scientific experiment: under the guidance of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), he and a number of other researchers will have their minds linked with vat-created hybrids of humans and the Pandoran natives, a tall blue cat-like species called the Na'vi. Like the others who control these "avatars", Sully is primarily meant to observe and conduct diplomatic missions with the Na'vi; but as the only military man with an avatar of his own, he's quickly tagged by Colonel Evil - though for some reason, the credits and the IMDb say that his character names is actually Quaritch (Stephen Lang) - to provide tactical intelligence, should it become necessary to remove the Na'vi by force. You see, it turns out that one of the planet's largest indigenous populations is located right above the planet's largest vein of the supremely precious metal unobtanium, and if the human population's corporate-appointed leader Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) can't remove the Na'vi nicely, he'll just go ahead and do it the hard way. Which is fine by Sully at first, until he, in his avatar form, falls in love with the daughter of the local Na'vi chief, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana... kind of).

The "kind of" is the whole thing. If you're not living under a rock, you already know all about the massive technical accomplishment of Avatar: all of the Na'vi and the avatars are motion-capture CGI effects, and a hefty percentage of the film's locations are CGI as well. Indeed, Avatar has such a monumental amount of computer-generated imagery that it makes just as much sense to call it an animated film with some live-action sequences as to call it a live-action film with CG effects. Either way, it is easily one of the most visually stunning films in recent memory; not simply because of the incredibly high quality of the effects themselves - turns out that $350 million buys you a hell of a lot of computing power - but because of the visionary elegance to what is being depicted using Cameron's decade-in-development high-tech toys (you've heard the story about how he was ready to make this film right after Titanic, but he had to wait until now for the involved technology to reach a sufficiently refined state of development, right? If not, I guess you have now). I know there's no lazier clichΓ© than, "like nothing you've ever seen, but Jesus Christ, this Is Like Nothing You've Ever Seen. At a certain point, and here's what I was getting at when I started, it stops being a story at all and is instead just a sheer, unmitigated visual and auditory experience, two hours and forty minutes of being exposed to a brand new world rendered in the most convincing photo-realistic detail of any science-fiction fantasy of the computer age.

There is a habit we sometimes have of comparing movies to video games; and this very nearly always means that the film is full of raucous action and a swooping, swirling camera and ugly CGI. In fact, movies that are compared to video games very nearly never are at all like video games; games need to have a very coherent, systematic visual language in order for the player to engage with the action. But be that as it may, there are a great many kinds of video games, and only some of them are action-heavy and full of impossible physics. My point is that Avatar does actually remind me of a video game (I mean, hell, it's called "Avatar"; and not just because most of it is CGI. It specifically reminds me of the games Myst and its sequel Riven; point-and-click adventure games that were still a big deal in the dark ages of PC gaming back in the 1990s (Riven came out the same quarter of the same year as Titanic, happily enough). Nominally, these were puzzle-solving games, but really the draw was exploration: wandering around in a completely immersive world full of sights and sounds like nothing in reality, just for the sheer sake of seeing the impossible made manifest. Maybe I'd concede the existence of Avatar's plot, and compare it rather to the Metroid Prime games, but in any case the appeal is much the same - basking in an alternate world built up of myriad details. And killing large, toothy evil creatures.

This is the mode in which Avatar is a masterpiece: seeing what wonders have been designed and created by Cameron and his production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, the art directors, and the army of computer technicians giving all those artists' visions form and body. I am no lover of 3-D cinema, but I can't imagine any other way to experience Avatar - 3-D is perhaps a gimmicky spectacle, but this is spectacle in its purest form, which is why I've been fairly disinclined to complain about things like the horrible rush to get the plot over in the last 30 minutes or so, or the hideously predictable character arcs. Applying the rules of plot and narrative structure to something that is so viscerally visual seems horribly wrong-headed; this is a movie about being sucked into the screen, and finding there a panoply of sights and sounds that defy human logic (in this respect, Sully may be a poor character, but he's an extremely good audience surrogate). More than any movie I have seen in the last several years except for perhaps The Fall, Avatar is like walking around in someone else's imagination for a little while, and finding it more full of delights than you could have conceived. I hate to be so vague about all this, but that's the thing: the appeal of Avatar is in seeing things that can hardly be described, rendered right there in front of your eyes, so that you cold almost touch them.

When this is the only thing that Avatar is doing, it is completely and utterly above reproach. But the plot keeps insistently pushing its way in, and this I think is the only real crippling flaw about the movie: it is so concerned that it be "about" something other than the act of watching it, and this rather spoils the experience of just sitting in the dark, with Cameron's wonderland spinning all about you. Paradoxically, the long stretches of the movie that are the most sensory and non-narrative are the ones that feel absolutely timeless; the stuff where things happen, sometimes very quickly, is where the 162 minute running time really makes itself felt. And it's for this that I must in good conscious demote the film from "rule-breaking masterpiece of the medium" to "really damn good movie"; though I spent most of the trip out of the theater reflecting on how insanely gorgeous and mind-expanding most of what I'd just seen was, there was a part of me urgently piping in, "aye, but there were some terrible pacing issues, don't you think? Too little happening in the first two hours, and far too much in the last 40 minutes. And the characters were awful ciphers, even for a James Cameron movie. That sex scene was tremendously risible. When you get right down to it, there's a lot we still don't know about how the Na'vi world "works". And damn me, that Horner score is shitty." All conceded, though not without regret. Because those are nitpicks, and Avatar is such a tremendous achievement of visual imagination - a great eye-popping spectacular like cinema used to be back when it was used for nothing but dazzling and delighting the mind and the eye - that it feels somehow like it ought to be above nitpicking. No film of recent creation better deserves the description "visionary", and none so urgently demands to be seen and felt in 3-D on the biggest screen possible. I don't like to think of myself as a shill for gimcrackery, but there is an absorbing richness to Avatar that fully justifies it.