Over this last weekend, I finally got around to seeing Avatar in 3D, and then yesterday the Oscar nominees came out. Unsurprisingly, Avatar was one of the picks for the most coveted of the Academy awards, the Best Picture. I understand why it was nominated, and I expect it may likely win. I also expect that Cameron may well win for best director as well. That said, I do not think it or he deserves the win. Avatar, which managed to win both awards at the Golden Globes, did not win either award at the Directors Guild (DGA), the awards event that gave the nod to The Hurt Locker, the film that deserves to win hands-down.
Bottom-line: Cameron knows how to make big splashy mainstream Hollywood films that rake in big bucks. He is responsible for the Terminator franchise, one or two of the Alien movies, and another Oscar winner Titanic, a movie that I – in the minority –did not much care for. Cameron is Hollywood royalty. He spends boatloads money making grand epics and earns it back ten-fold…and the Academy loves grand epic films with high box office receipts…so who cares if the story isn’t there to back up the spectacle? This is not always the case, but it’s happened too often to overlook. Past cases-in-point: A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, and of course Titanic. Go ahead and call me a blowhard, but I think that these movies were all beautifully polished turds, albeit polished turds with impressive budgets.
Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Avatar, I really did. I do not put in the category of a turd – not at all. I think that Cameron created a beautiful and remarkable world on Pandora. I appreciated the astonishing attention to all the production design, the visual effects, makeup, and the great attention paid to every last detail, but when you’ve got 4+ years and a reported $280 million to spend, I expect as much…and I was duly entertained. I do have issues however. First with the story. The Avatar concept was interesting, but was nothing even remotely original. If you haven’t seen it yet on Facebook or elsewhere, the now-classic comparison between Avatar and Disney’s Pocahontas pretty much nails it. Face it folks, it’s Technicolor fluff with guns and lots of big explosions. Another web phenomenon, but also a really strange and questionable choice, was that of using Papyrus as the font for the titles and subtitles. It was a very distracting disconnect, especially for those of us who have a deep fondness for font in design.
I found Cameron’s heavy-handed, hardly transparent and self-righteous political correctness with his obvious analogies to Native Americans (getting back to Pocahontas) and their “connection to all things living,” a people in touch with the natural energies of the world, manipulative. His obvious “green” messages about energy dependence vs. a purer Pantheist view of the world (which I in fact embrace) were smug and sanctimonious.
The piece that really surprised me however was how the films starts first with our common enemy, the evil hawk of a general, engaging in a non-provoked aggression against a lesser race for their natural energy supplies (sounds familiar, right?), which of course we rally against, feeling politically correct ourselves [look up The White Man’s Burden]. Our hero, a jarhead with the muddled sensibility of a blue-collar Jersey construction worker has apparently experienced a spiritual awakening of sorts, and comes back to save the day (as the natives are clearly incapable of saving themselves). A seemingly unintended message, we are left with a subtly patronizing act of noblesse oblige, wherein the (enlightened) white man has to come in and help the savages out. The subtext is one of superiority, that we must help those out that cannot help themselves, because they are inevitably inferior and ignorant.
Hurt Locker on the other hand, was powerful in the most visceral sense, in the deepest emotionally impacting sense. It is a film about real brutality, and is portrayed in such a way as to make you feel like a fly on the wall observer. It takes hard looks into the damaged psyche of soldiers in war, and should be included in the list of the great war movies along with Gallipoli, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and The Deer Hunter. It is a beautiful film dealing with the stark and upsetting realities of war, and is an undeniable piece of modern-day classic cinema…and it deserves to win the best picture Oscar along with Katherine Bigelow for best director.
This battle between the Epic Goliath that is Avatar against the smaller, but ultimately more powerful Hurt Locker is of even greater and gossipier interest as Katherine Bigelow and James Cameron were once married. What’s more, it it’s entire 82 years of existence, The Academy has never given the best director award to a woman. Speaking of political correctness, giving the woman the award would be the “right thing to do,” but more than that, her work is simply more deserving. The 82nd Academy Awards airs on March 7th.