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Cameron’s Lesson Learned From ‘Titanic’

The effects are staggering, but the story sucks harder than Daniel Plainview working that milkshake straw

What kind of artist do we, as a culture, really value? An artful genius of technology or a masterful story weaver who uses technology?

James Cameron helped us answer that question with the astounding success of 1997’s “Titanic.” Stunning for its special effects — who can forget the spectacle of that doomed ocean liner slipping beneath the waves? — it barely merited a D-grade for its human story.

But even though the romance between working-class Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and upperclasswoman Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) was waterlogged with clich├ęs, their fate was inextricably anchored to a nightmarishly powerful and real story.

And did we mention awesome effects? Even if the movie’d had Jar Jar Binks (the most annoying movie character of all time) in place of Leo, it would have been a smash. Cameron would still have celebrated his Excellent Jim-ness as he pumped his Oscar into the air.

The King of the World clearly learned a lesson. (No lesson is faster learned than “Hey, I was right.”) He realized we pay lip service to a good story; in fact, we’re not that picky. As long as the drama elicits some kind of primeval response, as long as it evokes the idea of a good tale or dredges up some Jungian response, we’re in.

We’re so distracted by the cinematic equivalent of the bright, shiny object, we don’t have the psychic space for much else.

In other words, for all the movies and television we watch in a lifetime, we are dramaturgical airheads.

So along comes “Avatar,” and — what d’ya know? — its effects are staggering. But the story sucks harder than Daniel Plainview working that milkshake straw.

Briefly: In 2154, humans come to a planet called Pandora to steal an essential mineral. They need to infiltrate a tribe of giant aliens known as Na’vi, who suggest a cross between the aforementioned Jar Jar and Native American warriors. They are beautiful, elegant and ruthless.

So the human devise humanoids known as avatars — artificial alien beings psychically operated by humans — to infiltrate the tribe. A romance develops when one such avatar (Sam Worthington) and a female Na’vi known as Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) fall in love.

Unfortunately, you have to endure an eco-fuzzy allegory, in which alien woodland creatures take on Bad Man, His Greed and His Bad Machines. Even Michael Moore would wince. It’s the $300 million version of “Ferngully” and Disney’s’ “Pocahontas.” And, boy, did I hate those movies.

Most hilarious of all, is the casting of Sigourney Weaver, who runs around with almost no narrative purpose, except to remind us she was once the star of the “Alien” franchise and, somehow, deserves a sinecure.

But the reviews are gushing at full geyser spurt, with no closing line more fawning than this from Roger Ebert: “It takes a hell of a lot of nerve for a man to stand up at the Oscarcast and proclaim himself King of the World. James Cameron just got re-elected.”

Whether kings get elected in the first place, this much does seem inevitable: Cameron’s movie is going to be huge. “LOTR” huge. Stupid huge. And let me state now, with no lack of embarrassment, though I thought the story was cringe-inducingly hackneyed, I fell in love with the world I entered.

I also fell in love with Neytiri. And although Zoe Saldana provides only the voice for the character, I am going to have to include her in my whole crush package. Saldana’s voice and this creation are all one being, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, it’s about time I had a new synthetic-character attraction. The last such crush I had was on Betty Rubble from the Flintstones. (That Barney had no idea how lucky he was!)

But make no mistake: The movie’s 3D effects. Its extraordinary depth of field. The motion capture. The creation of those Na’vi. And Cameron’s visual design. Are. Amazing. You are brought into a world as special as anything Lucas ever created. And I suppose there really is a connective mythic story at the heart of all this.

The main character, Worthington’s Jake Sully, is a paraplegic who is transformed into full mobility when he operates as an avatar. To me, he represents Hephaestus, the limp son of Zeus and Hera, who was the blacksmith of the gods. Among Hephaestus’ creations: Pandora, the first created woman that the gods gave to man.

Jake’s not the only one who represents that demigod, who brings technology to humans from above. The other one is Cameron himself. He’s not necessarily King of the World, but (lilke Hephaestus), he travels easily between two worlds — present and future. He brings technology to humans from above.

And in the end, he’s the unspoken star of this postmodern myth.