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The Best Picture Wins Best Picture

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The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):

Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.

The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?

The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.

Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”

All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.

Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.

This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.

My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors  and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.

Avatar: Dances with Clichés

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Avatar tells the tale of injured soldier Jake Sully who travels to the forest moon Pandora and finds himself taken in by a race of primitive space furies called the Na’Vi. Unfortunately, the evil corporation he works for wants to bulldoze the sacred rainforest around the tribe’s Hometree and Sully—who has fallen in love with the chief’s daughter Netyiri—must become the sacred tribe’s greatest warrior, most brilliant strategist and most powerful spiritual leader in order to save the space natives from the powerful white/male/military/industrial/capitalist conglomeration of evil…and he only has three months to do it!

Of course, I might just have easily said the injured soldier John Dunbar, the forest moon of Endor, the sacred forest of FernGully, and the princess Pocahontas. Avatar’s story has allegedly been kicking around James Cameron’s head since he made his last feature (1997’s Titanic) yet the plot is a stale composite of clichés and borrowed elements that feels as if it was cobbled together in a weekend’s time. The minute you are introduced to The Native Princess, The Evil Military Man, The Greedy Businessman and the rest of the cardboard cut-outs that populate Avatar, you know the entire plot. In fact, you even know the exact words they will say. A great battle is about to start? “Let’s dance.” A villain returns for a final fight? “Come get some!” A new world is introduced? “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Here I was hoping for some character to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, sir, what is a ‘Kansas’ exactly?” “Geez, I’m not sure. I think it was a province a century ago when earth was divided into nation states before the great unification war? Not sure why I just thought of it.”)

I don’t mean to imply that Avatar is wholly unoriginal. Cameron does imbue his world with a New Agey environmental-mysticism that is capped by his aliens having USB cords in their ponytails. These fashionable cables can be plugged into various wild critters to brain-rape them into obedience. Surely a shrewd marketing move to capture the pre-teen female audience by letting them live out their fantasies of becoming one with a pony.

But perhaps storytelling, dialogue, and acting are not what you go to a sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza for. You go for the visuals, the epic scope and, especially with Avatar, the awesome special effects. And they are awesome. As mediocre as Avatar is on most levels, the visuals alone make the film worth viewing once—at least in theaters with 3D capabilities (it is almost criminal that some theaters are showing this in 2D.). Avatar is not the first film to effectively use 3D technology, but it is the first blockbuster to do so. No more sticks pointing out of the screen or freaky inhuman CGI characters—yes, Robert Zemeckis, I’m looking at you—Avatar keeps the 3D unobtrusive yet totally immersive. The CGI for the Na’vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora are wonderful, using the same performance capture technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings.

A related area of success in the film is the world’s design. From the floating mountains to fireworks lizards and shrinking mushrooms, the world of Pandora is gorgeously designed and rendered. Indeed the Na’Vi themselves, with their glow-in-the-dark Smurf skin and necklaces that magically always cover their nipples to preserve a PG-13 rating, are the weakest element in a film that is otherwise flawlessly designed.

If this was a screen saver, you’d have to say James Cameron did one heck of a job. Unfortunately, it is a film and all the other aspects feel glossed over.

I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy. Not just the plot and dialogue—which approach prequel George Lucas levels—but the staging, directing and world building as well. Yes, I know I just said the creatures are fantastically designed—a process Cameron apparently left largely up to his artists—but conceptually they are merely space versions of your local zoo population. The film does not succeed in transporting you to a truly alien world ala the Star Wars films. Couldn’t Cameron have made aliens that conjured aboriginal earth tribes without copying them wholesale? Why are these otherworldly beings wearing tribal beads and shooting arrows with feathered tails and rock tips? Is there nothing about their world that would provide unique weapons or clothing or at least alien-looking versions of earth items?

Visually the 3D graphics are overwhelming, but the scenes themselves contain little of interest. The final battle in particular is epic fluff. The tactics are nonsense (the Na’vi aren’t smart enough to drop logs into the helicopter blades so instead attack them with bow and arrows?) and the scenes are lazily staged. The closest thing to a visually arresting moment in the film is when a bunch of flying seeds collectively give Sully a planet-spirit hug while he stands on a neon log.

In short, we have the imagery but where is the imagination?

Unlike many sci-fi films, I would not say that there are any gaping plot holes that ruin the story. That doesn’t mean it makes much sense. What is the point of the entire avatar program? According to the film, the genetically-engineered bodies—which are controlled remotely by humans—are there to work diplomacy with the Na’Vi and convince them to leave their magic tree so that the “unobtanium” mineral beneath it can be mined. But why does an evil corporation need to spend untold billions creating human-Na’Vi hybrid bio-robots just to do a little diplomacy? The Na’Vi are aware that the avatars are not authentic and indeed the humans have avatar-sized human clothing (Sigourney Weaver dances around in short-shorts and a Stanford tank top) so why not just send some people out in mech suits to negotiate?

On that note, what kind of futuristic mercenary military outfits half its soldiers with powerful robot armor yet sticks Jake Sully in a 40 dollar wheelchair from Wal-Mart? They don’t even have some kind of Segway wheelchair in the year 2154?

And then of course there is the film’s politics, which are muddier than some critics seem to think. In addition to the inherent silliness of spending several hundred million dollars and creating your own digital cameras to critique technologically-driven capitalism, the film’s cultural imperialism has rightly been widely derided. Building a film around the idea that a native population is too stupid to take care of itself and requires a white man to save them is a problematic premise to start from.

And then again there is also the acting. Credit should go to Stephen Lang for pumping some life into the evil colonel, but Weaver is uncharacteristically stilted as the good scientist Dr. Augustine and Worthington is as animated as a mulch pile. Wooden acting is one thing when the characters are Terminator robots, but Sam Worthington’s Sully is supposed to be the character we relate to and his performance drags down the film whenever he is in human form or doing voiceovers (the latter of which are almost universally unbearable. Worthington lulls you to sleep with his dull monotone only to wake you with groan-inducing lines like “I hope this tree-hugging crap isn’t on the final exam.”)

I don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with?

But one must give credit where credit is due. In making a film whose virtues are entirely wrapped up in the 3-D theater visuals, Cameron has succeeded in making the first film in some time which simply must be seen in theaters. You would get no enjoyment watching this film on your iPhone or bootlegging it on your laptop. (Remember how the visuals were mocked when the trailer was shown on TV and online?) So perhaps the hype about Avatar saving the industry is not entirely imaginary. Cameron has shown us that flashy special effects and marketing hype can still draw huge crowds to the theater. Here is to hoping those who follow in his technological footsteps bother to spend a little time on their scripts.

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