Sometimes a film comes along that pushes the boundaries of what moviemaking can yield -- the kind of movie that reaches beyond the limits of the medium and blazes a new trail, subsequently allowing others with abundant resources to follow in its path. Despite any nitpicky flaws one might -- or might not -- find within the picture, James Cameron’s Avatar is absolutely this kind of touchstone. Although audiences have become used to seeing advances in high-end technology, those previous developments haven’t quite added up to this level of razzle-dazzle. For that, the filmmaker and his tireless crew deserve the many praises that they’ll no doubt get. Avatar is a special-effects marvel -- and it’s that area of the film that will rule many people’s reactions, even if one may wonder whether a film with as grand a reach as this deserves a bit more scrutiny for falling back on familiar ground story-wise. For all of his talk of putting characters and story first, Cameron basically jazzes up a cocktail of Dune, A Man Called Horse, and Dances With Wolves, yet presents it with such panache that it’ll leave the majority of viewers unfazed by its rehashed nature, with a few others questioning if there should have been more meat to such an extravagant feast. Devil’s advocate aside, Cameron does deliver the goods in the action arena, as well as the spectacle of this wondrous new world he built from the ground up. It’d be hard to blame paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) for siding with an indigenous alien race such as the Na’vi. When faced with infiltrating their ranks for the megacorp that’s invading their planet, Pandora, Jake is pulled into a new life, discovering love, spirituality, and the kind of exhilaration he’s never experienced before. The lush world is a visual wonder, complete with a heartbeat that pulses through all of the living things that populate it, including Jake via his Avatar (a being made out of human and Na’vi DNA which his consciousness is jacked into). As Jake becomes part of the Na’vi tribe -- and closer to their princess heir, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), his linked-in life begins to overrule his normal wheelchair-bound one. Soon his bosses begin to wonder if he’s really trying to bring a diplomatic end to the fight between the natives and the invading human force (set in motion because of greed) -- or simply siding with an indigenous species who can’t possibly compete with the firepower of the corporation’s private security arm, lead by Col. Miles Quaritch (a star-making turn from Stephen Lang). Make no mistake, the level of artistry on display is beyond most anything seen on the big screen before -- and it should be seen in the theaters. Presented in impressive 3D, the screen is filled with depth and color the likes of which are being hailed as the new benchmark. Certainly the motion-capture elements (where actors’ minute movements are recorded and translated onto ultra-real computer-animated characters) come closer to fantastical hyper-reality than anything before. Yet, Cameron isn’t just concerned with showing off his very expensive goods; Avatar is at its heart a popcorn flick -- albeit, one with a political conscience. Despite its fairly obvious morality lessons, the film doesn’t preach as much as deliver large-scale action and wrenching drama for mass audiences to eat up. The man is a showman -- and he packed his new baby with enough awe, excitement, and emotion to justify the 160-minute epic running time, which to his credit, never once feels too long. Story issues aside, if there are flaws -- and various people will no doubt have different reactions to it -- one could start with the staleness of James Horner’s all-too-familiar Titanic-sounding score (not surprising since the composer is notorious for aping the same themes for decades now). The design of the film will also be a contentious issue -- with people who do and don’t connect with the blue cat people aesthetics. Cameron doesn’t make a great case for Sam Worthington either, whose cardboard-type nature is not only on full display when delivering his awkward “stoked” dialogue, but in his not-so-interesting body language as well. In contrast, Saldana’s performance gives Neytiri a stunningly real quality -- lending her not only a soul but an acute physical prowess that sells the entire character. She’s exactly the type of actor that this technology needs in order to prove its state-of-the-art promise of limitless imagination. Though it is merely a stepping stone in a long line of pioneers, one thing is for sure -- viewers who are at all interested in being transported to this new land have quite the experience waiting for them. How they’ll feel on the way out of the theater is the real question.