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A Na'vi warrior races into battle on a Thanator, a fearsome pantherlike creature native to Pandora in "Avatar."

AVATAR — ★★1/2 — Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and featuring the image and voice of Zoe Saldana and others; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, slurs, brief drugs, brief partial nudity, brief gore, vulgarity, brief sex); in general release (shown in 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX formats at varying locations)

All "Avatar" really needs to have is a serviceable plot.

After all, James Cameron's long-awaited return to feature filmmaking has been touted as such a visual spectacle that it should be able to take care of the rest of the cinematic magic, right?

Make no mistake, this science-fiction thriller has a lot of things in its favor. The innovative use of motion-capture technology, virtual backgrounds, computer-generated characters and vehicles and other digital trickery alone make it a feast for the eyes.

It does fail a bit in terms of plot and story content. Among other things, its clunky, unoriginal story elements recall bits from the 1992 animated feature "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest" and the Oscar-winning "Dances With Wolves" (1990). Also, there's some pretty awful dialogue and a certain aloofness to it.

So while it's pretty cool, it's also pretty cool — at least in terms of emotional content and connectivity.

Not to be confused with popular animated series of the same name, this science-fiction thriller follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a U.S. Marine who lost the use of his legs in battle.

However, he's assumed his late twin's place in a top-secret research project. Jake's researcher brother was headed to the planet Pandora, where a corporation hopes to mine a valuable ore.

The indigenous population — made up of 10-foot-tall, catlike beings known as the Na'vi — are reluctant to let them do that.

So scientists have created "avatars" — replicas of Na'vi forms that use both human and Na'vi genetic material.

With his consciousness projected into one of these "avatars," Jake is supposed to be serving as the bodyguard to scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who's trying to smooth out human-Na'vi relations.

Instead, he gets lost in Pandora's jungles and is saved by a Na'vi, Neyteri (the voice and likeness of Zoe Saldana). She and her fellow tribesmen then must decide whether to take Jake into their ranks or just kill him.

Again, there's as lot to like here, especially in terms of visuals. The planet's creatures include not only the lifelike Na'vi but also several dinosaur-ish beasties. (Among these are "banshees," the Na'vi's dragon-like steeds, as well as animals that correspond to this world's equivalent of horses, rhinoceroses, lions and jackals.)

Admittedly, this digital world feels like a video game environment and, in the 3-D format at least, begins to create visual overload. The film's performances are also very inconsistent.

Supporting performer Michelle Rodriguez is all bluster and no emotion as a fellow Marine, while Saldana can't decide if her character is supposed to be speaking with a Jamaican patois or not.

And then there's Stephen Lang's scenery-chewing performance as the villain of the piece. He apparently believed he was acting in an animated feature instead of a live-action cartoon.

"Avatar" is rated PG-13 and features strong violent content and imagery (gunplay and shootings, knife violence, impalings and stabbings, arrow fire, creature attacks, vehicular and explosive mayhem, and violence against women and children), occasional strong profanity, derogatory language and slurs, brief drug content and references (various toxins and poisonous gasses), brief partial nudity (male and female, as well as native nudity), brief gore and blood, a few vulgar references (slang), and a brief sex scene (mostly implied). Running time: 161 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com