I’m having a hard time deciding exactly how I feel about Avatar.

On the one hand, it has a shopworn plot, clunky dialogue, cardboard villains and heavy-handed messages about the environment and military imperialism. But on the other hand, it creates and inhabits an entirely new world to a degree I’ve never quite experienced before in a movie. The cutting-edge special effects bring to vivid life an entire ecosystem brimming with the fantastic imaginings of its creator.

That creator, of course, is James Cameron, the director of such enduring classics as The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. Cameron has spent many of the 12 years since Titanic won a crate full of Oscars and set the all-time box office record working on Avatar, specifically on the motion capture technology that allows flesh-and-blood actors to bring digital characters to life in a way that makes Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum look like a sock puppet.

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