Could “Avatar” really win Best Picture?

Yesterday afternoon, I saw “Avatar” in a packed Japanese cinema with six of my fellow English teachers. The 162 minutes passed comfortably enough – we only stirred to chuckle at the George W. Bush Memorial Speech – then turned in our goggles, had some laughs at the film’s expense, and then talked about other movies on the way. It was a three star picture all the way: you don’t feel strongly enough to say “that was good” to your friends, but you certainly don’t feel like you wasted your time or that you were trapped there by your friends.

This afternoon I came home and read that this same three-star picture had won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. The Drama Golden Globe is the quasi-Oscar. This means it could actually win the real Oscar. I feel like I say “I can’t believe the Academy did this!” almost every year (I’m still annoyed that Scorcese’s first Best Picture was an inferior remake of a Hong Kong flick), but this is that one funky night in forty thousand years where I emerge from my tomb and write a ghoulish film snob essay. True, I live an hour from the closest theatre and I didn’t watch a 2009 movie until Christmas break, but I just saw “Avatar” yesterday, and of all the movies I didn’t see last year, at least one of them had to be better than that – and “Star Trek” and “The Hangover” were. This would be like the time NBA writers gave Karl Malone the MVP over Michael Jordan in ’97 because they felt like it. The voters would be saying, “I feel good about this thing, and I know I’m paid to know more about film than the average person…what the hell, but let’s do it.” The Academy has honored an average film for its blockbuster budget and celebrity director before (Cecil B. DeMille, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” 1952), but now that a a dozen movies a year cost more money than we have in all of Kumamoto Prefecture, and something even more amazing is bound to come out next summer, it doesn’t make as much sense. None of Spielberg’s blockbusters or the superhero films got this much respect.

Without further ado.

The Good:
Bringing back 3D was the best thing the movie did. That’s why we’ll remember it. Some children’s movies and IMAX have been doing it for a few years now, but this film brought it into the mainstream. It’s genius, an answer so simple and yet so elusive that it didn’t come for seven years. The question, Alex, was “How is the movie business going to get people out of their basements and back to the box office?” Ever since DVDs and High Definition TV, they’ve been stumped. The TV and video game business have a lot riding on this battle, too, so we’ll get our 3D sets eventually, but for now cinema is a step ahead again. I went out of my way to buy an “Avatar” ticket especially because I couldn’t get the same experience with my DVD player next year. It was even easier to go back into everyday life after this 3-hour film (usually I double-take just a little when I’m back in the hallway) because real life has the same dimensions the film did.

That said, we can improve on this. A theatre packed with people in glasses looked really goofy, and if Ray Bradbury were alive he’d have made some nasty comments about our choices in entertainment, but that look is superficial and needn’t be changed. The bigger problem is that the glasses darken the picture, so you take them off now and again just to see some “real” sunlight from the screen. The “Toy Story 3” trailer had cooler tricks than anything we saw in “Avatar.” And again, this film didn’t invent 3D. It just used 3D to make itself a lot more interesting.

The aliens* were great. This was money well-spent. They’re very distinct from human beings, but they’re beautiful. You really used to them, such that the contrast shots of humans and aliens in the same screen, like the Pieta, are moving, and I felt short and fat when I left the theatre. Yes, they’re blue, but to contrast with the trees and still look natural, they have to be blue, right? They moved so naturally that I decided Cameron filmed professional athletes doing these things then modeled the CG on top of them. And it was a really beautiful Duke blue. Their language was designed by a professional linguist, and it sounded legit – rhythmic and structured and everything, and the American accent the hero puts on it is great. Their secret powers were really cool, too, though they were employed too conventionally.

*Yes, I know they’re the “Navi,” but not everyone has seen it yet, and I still associate that name more with (1) NaviStar (“uh oh, now that iPhones are here, who’s going to take us home?”), (2) Zelda 64 (“HEY! LISTEN! Shigeru Miyamoto, remember that thou art mortal. HEY!!”), and (3) the Navejo Indians (but this was probably intentional).

The Environment: The graphics were of such tremendous quality that I only now remembered everything, not just the blue people, was artificially produced. It was breathtaking, and the hunting scenes were always exhilarating. I never got tired of watching the screen. There were so many new looks, so many beautiful new flora and fauna, that I really want to visit this place again. But photographs, posters, and wallpaper wouldn’t do it justice: watching everything move together, in a unique but elegant way, is the biggest reward. The only way to return is to watch the movie again. That’s where this film’s replay value will come from.

The action was exciting. But…there was a ton of action. There wasn’t much blood, but in terms of content, and divisions of screen time, it was an extremely violent movie. When the sentient beings aren’t fighting each other, they’re hunting, after all.

The actors were fine. There were no Lawrence Os, but there were no Sofia Coppolas either. The villains were intolerable, but the writing killed them. The most memorable actor is the hero’s avatar.

The music was nice at the time, but could you remember any of it the day after you left the theatre? Even worse, if you heard anything from this movie a year from now, would you remember where it came from? James Horner, like John Williams, has peaked already.

The dialogue was bland but not offensive. It was impressively average, really, in how small an impression it made on me.

The Bad:
: “White men are terrible, but one white man is the most precious gift of all.” In three months, an American hero masters a culture he knew nothing about, beds their most beautiful woman, and leads them into battle. Hey, “The Last Samurai” has returned even though Asian studies majors are still writing essays about it! “Dances With Wolves” mirror’s the hero’s story arc even more.

“Our culture is rational and technological but shallow. Minority cultures are naturalistic, spiritual, and wise.” This is demeaning to everyone. One question, asked by Jonah Goldberg, that I liked: “How would this have gone over if the aliens had been Roman Catholics?” For the record, the alien society seemed slightly boring to me, like all anyone did was hunt and might made right. If you could communicate in the way the aliens do, wouldn’t you have more insightful things to say, by the way?

Ferngully: This deserves its own category because if 20th Century Fox hadn’t produced both movies, they’d be facing royalty claims right now. The love triangle is the same. The scenery for the falling-in-love scene is the same. And of course, the “Save the Rainforest” plot is the same, right down to the “unexpected” bulldozer attacks, the assault on the father tree, and the aftermath. By the way, if you want a great ecological action movie, watch “Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind,” Hayao Miyazaki, 1984. I’m no Hexas: that film brought tears to my eyes.

The Plot: To be fair, I was rooting for the hero the whole time. I liked his motivation for joining the Avatar program, his spirit, and also his identity confusion, were done pretty well. When some dick yells at him, “YOU’LL NEVER BE ONE OF US!” it got my gaijin heart right there. You can also see why the male and female leads admire each other. The romance attached to monogamy was nice. And the movie never stopped being enjoyable for me.

But the plot-holes disqualify the movie from serious consideration for me. It’s high school-grade. A mature writer says, “This is the way things are, and no matter what I have to stay true to that.” An immature writer says, “This is what I want to say, so I’ll now I’ll devise a plot that says that.”

The Ugly:
-Never mind the mind-melding. Here’s what makes this film impossible: no multi-trillion-dollar enterprise with a bigger budget than 2007 Earth would make two psychotic morons as its leaders. That combination of wealth, influence, idiocy, sloth, and dis-likability is only possible in hereditary monarchies. Cameron must have worked several flawless hundred-hour weeks to get to the top himself – he of all people should know how hard it is. The CEO demon was Ari Gold with Vince’s brother’s intellect. Hearing the CEO say “Nyah nyah nyah I don’t care about science” when his entire operation is based on incredibly complex silence was painful to my sanity.
-On a lesser level, no company with so many years and trillions invested in this project would follow a self-imposed three-month eviction notice so strictly, having FINALLY started making progress with its inside man? What’s the rush, exactly, when we have such unlimited resources?
-Where are the journalists? Something this big requires an AP presence, right?
-The hero has something crucial to communicate to the aliens for three months, and he never comes close to saying it. He doesn’t even think about whether he should tell them or not. And Sigourney Weaver, his science boss, doesn’t remind him.
-Really? They’d accept him into their society after just three months, based on his hunting prowess alone, despite his poor language skills, his rudimentary understanding of their powers and their society, and his glaringly obvious connection to the enemy whenever he fell asleep? (They called him a “Dreamwalker” in the Japanese version, like they knew what he was like.)
-Sigourney Weaver, the all-knowing alien expert who was a language snob earlier in the movie, speaks English to them when she needs to communicate really important things to large numbers of them at the climax of the film. “HEY! LISTEN! STOP!”
-After Michelle Rodriguez bailed on that one mission, she would absolutely be locked up and shipped out for insubordination, not left free to roam on the ship and make more trouble. The same goes for all the other scientists.
-The pilots all act like they’ve never thought in three dimensions before, and their planes are designed like so. Can we at least make our military read page 63 of “Ender’s Game” before sending them into intergalactic war?
-If the hero is such an aerial genius, why was he in the Marines? Doesn’t the military have aptitude testing?

It’s a little jarring that the antagonist of a three-hour film has no name and no logo. Terminator, Wall-E, and even Office Space permitted us that mercy. But because the corporation is nameless and faceless, we can more easily associate it with its true identity: it’s the United States of America, barging in and wrecking countries for resources. The corporation is not even multinational: they all have American accents, use jarhead lingo, and steal language from George W. Bush.

The rock the corporation wants is called “unobtainium.” Indeed. But we don’t even know what this rock does. At least we know what oil does – that helps our world make sense. If unobtainium is so ludicrously valuable, why do we have to have so much of it at once again?

Here’s the thing. James Cameron wrote the movie this way because he thought it would sell tickets. And it’s selling tickets. The only people saying it’s unfair are center-right writers in the States. If this is how the world sees America, then they just don’t want us around. Iraq, not Haiti, is the template for the USA’s role in the world.

In a good plot, everyone’s motivations and actions are understandable, but there’s still irreconcilable conflict, and through the resolution, all of us learn something. This plot just tells the left what it wants to hear. It inspires an emotional, even spiritual response without giving us any concrete help for untangling the sophisticated problems of today’s world. There were really compelling and intelligent reasons not to go into Iraq (such as that their culture could never transform the way Bush predicted it would), but because conservatives associated the anti-war argument with anti-Bush, “no blood for oil” type sentiment, they attacked the straw man instead of the hard truths and stood by their man. And now here we are. It’s the right’s fault but also the leftist establishment’s for not putting up a more intelligent fight.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, and you have an Academy vote, give Cameron all your cinematography trophies, but please respect Best Picture and give it to something more balanced. “Avatar” was a good movie, after all. It just has one of the biggest style/substance gaps in film history.

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2 Comments on “Could “Avatar” really win Best Picture?”

  1. […] – It was about as 3-star as a movie can get but a common cultural experience for the global […]

  2. You nailed it on all fronts. One thing though, I think the 3 month deadline was connected to the boring villain talking about how bad quarterly financial reports bothered the stockholders more than bad press did.

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