Avatar Vs. Hurt Locker: Flash Vs. Substance

Daniel House

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The Hurt Locker

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.

Sure, Avatar raked it in at the box office, already having earned the unbelievable sum of over 2 BILLION worldwide. Hurt Locker meanwhile earned only $12 million, a pittance by comparative standards.

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.

Avatar Blue Meenie

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.

We have technology...and LOTS of money!

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. The Hurt Locker

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.

4 thoughts on “Avatar Vs. Hurt Locker: Flash Vs. Substance”

  1. I too enjoyed Avatar and felt all of the personally primeval attachments it was designed to generate. Hurt Locker affected me down to my bones … beyond the primitive and well into my sheltered subconsciousness. I hope my little review packs enough meaning into one sentence.

  2. I think you are comparing apples and oranges.

    Hurt Locker is a hyper-realistic drama with very naturalistic dialogue, using verité techniques to give a sense of immediacy and realism. Character lies at the center of such dramas. Humans are placed in impossible/horrifying situations and the result is riveting drama.

    Avatar is a sci-fi magnum opus, with grand sweepiing themes. The characters are drawn much more broadly and exist to serve the overall plot. Dialogue is unnatural and often grandiose or artificial-sounding. Character, especially naturalistically portrayed, is not useful in such a film. Can you imagine Indiana Jones, or Spiderman, or the Terminator, portrayed as a real human being? Who wants to know about Indiana’s personal problems? He’s an action hero, for God’s sake.

    The grittiness and naturalism of Hurt Locker would not work at all if transposed to Avatar, and the opposite is also true. The battle scenes in Hurt Locker are realistic and resemble documentary footage. The battle scenes in Avatar are cartoonish and resemble, well, sci-fi movie battle scenes. The blood is movie blood and you don’t empatize with the characters in the same way.

    The reason Avatar seems full of derivative themes, is that these are mythic themes. This is why we see them over and over, from Pocahontas to Dances with Wolves. Their origin stretches back into legend and myth, and they are resonant because these are the themes that dominate human history, good and bad. Jake Sully is John Smith is John Dunbar. By the way, notice the ordinariness of the names? Jake, John? He is Everyman, thrust into a situation where he believes at first he holds the cards, and then finds that the wisdom of an aboriginal culture is actually deeper than his own. The Teacher becomes the Student. The romance he falls into is, well, Love. And its power.

    Sigourney Weaver is Science, telling Colonel Quaritch (Mars) and Parker Selfridge (Destructive Capitalism) what they don’t want to hear, that Pandora (Nature) is unique and that to destroy it would be criminal.

    It is no wonder that the right wing is enraged about Avatar – reference is made several times to the “ruined earth”, militarism is portrayed as being at the service of colonialism and greed, environment is actually worshipped, the Earth is pictured as being ruled by giant heartless corporations – some might say this pictures the world we live in now, exaggerated for artistic purpose. This is the power of such a film. Hurt Locker, with its realism, its portrayal of complex characters and refusal to deal in black and white, would never stir such emotions on such a grand scale. It’s a different animal.

    This is Cameron’s genius – he takes on huge, operatic, Shakesperian themes like Love, War, Greed, Colonialism, and makes movies. This is not easy, no matter the budget. That’s why Cameron is a rare bird. It takes balls to take on these gigantic ideas and not look stupid when all is said and done. I’d say such movies are actually rarer than fine dramas like Hurt Locker. My dad always told me, “a minor key is more expressive, but writing in a major key is much more difficult”.

    I could go on, but – my point is, saying that Hurt Locker represents Substance, and Avatar, Flash, is merely revealing your personal preference. Using the tools one uses to analyze Hurt Locker to pick apart Avatar is meaningless. Hurt Locker is an intense personal drama. It looks at its players with a microscope to reveal texture and complexity rarely seen. Avatar is the world seen, instead, through a telescope, with a wide lens. It is grandiose and unrealistic. So is opera and symphonic music.

    When tens of millions walk out of theaters, worldwide, across cultures and nationalities, thinking of the environment and man’s inhumanity to man and colonialism and interventionalism and, yes, the power of love, this is a pretty rare achievement. And if it’s entertaining, that’s just icing on the cake. This is Cameron’s achievement. And don’t think it’s easy or common. Give the same budget to 20 directors, tell them to paint such a picture, and they’d you’d probably get 20 stinkers – unless one was Cameron. The history of motion pictures is full of examples. I would submit also that his previous movies speak for themselves – they will all be remembered as landmark films. It took the French to realize that John Ford westerns were actually mythic, immortal, and well-told stories, because U.S. critics were too good for them – noses in the air. My nose is not in the air.

  3. Hurt Locker winning the Oscar for best picture, or director, would be well-deserved of course. I only see that happening as a reaction ‘against’ the overwhelming success (at least financially, arguably artistically) of Avatar.
    I could go on, but my point is I’m not sure if I have a point. At least not one that Rick or Daniel didn’t already point out.

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