Avatar is currently the odds on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Almost everyone enjoyed this film, but does it deserve to win Best Picture?
My expectations for Avatar were hindered from the beginning. Avatar’s various previews accurately depict its recycled plot and clichéd theme of the noble savage. I immediately dubbed the film ‘Dances with Wolves meets Fern Gully meets Aliens.’ I wasn’t even aware that Sigourney Weaver was in the film! Despite my hesitations, I was flat-out entertained when I eventually saw the film. The enthralling nature of the film can best be explained by Cameron’s storytelling abilities combined with the new technologies at his disposal. The facial motion capture far exceeded my expectations and Cameron’s new brand of 3D filming enhanced the experience. Sam Worthington’s acting is solid, but he and everyone else are overshadowed by the performance of Zoe Saldana. Zoe’s performance as Neytiri sells the film. Avatar is 162 minutes long but given its positive qualities the film never drags and seems much shorter.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I can confidently say that Avatar is a very good film. BUT I have considerable issues with the screenplay. The screenplay takes no risks, insults our intelligence, and ruins what should have been a tremendous cinematic achievement. Cameron hinders the actors with ridiculous direction and endless cringe-worthy lines. Aside from the two leads, the cast was unfortunately not able to overcome the horrible dialogue to create realistic and compelling performances. Every character lacks any semblance of subtlety and has ridiculously slanted actions and emotions. Cameron obviously watched Michelle Rodriguez’s past performances as she plays the same sassy ‘one of the boys’ roles she always plays. After she makes the obvious decision to not follow orders, Cameron (the master of symbolism) displays this transition throughout the rest of the movie by showing off her incredible rack.
The most insulting and infuriating aspect of the entire movie is the antagonist played by Stephen Lang. Lang portrays a cartoon of a man who is seemly pure evil. Things like catching on fire and not breathing oxygen only mildly annoy this man while he is on his journey to kill the innocent. I find it interesting that two years after Javier Bardem provided us with one of the best antagonists to ever appear in a Best Picture film, we receive potentially the worst antagonist ever in a Best Picture film. Another film which copies the plot of Dances with Wolves is The Last Samurai. The Last Samurai provides us with a similar antagonist. Tom Cruise comes to oppose his former commanding officer, Colonel Bagley. Bagley criticizes Cruise’s decision to live with and fight for the native Samurai. But just as in Avatar the Colonel is killed by the protagonist during the climax. Colonel Miles Quaritch of Avatar and Colonel Bagley share many traits, but Bagley is a far superior antagonist because his restraint makes him a believable character. It’s hard to rationalize Cameron’s decisions when creating Colonel Miles Quaritch, possibly he felt he couldn’t chance having the audience feeling sympathy for the antagonist. Maybe Cameron wanted to play it safe with clear cut right and wrong, this way we won’t have to make our own judgments.
A major problem with Avatar is the lack of true conflict. Every one of Cameron’s characters are polarized and as a result the film lacks compelling characters with internal struggles. Obviously as soon as Jake begins training with the Na’vi everyone knows he will see the values of the Na’vi lifestyle. Cameron’s screenplay provides the audience with such an unbalanced portrayal of the two cultures, Jake’s decisions were oversimplified. Later in the film when Jake leads the Na’vi into warfare against the humans, there were ample opportunities for interesting conflict. The film could have been made slightly introspective if Cameron would have included just one conflicting scene. Maybe Jake could have encountered a human solider he considered to be a friend. Would Jake kill the man he knows to be good? Instead Cameron makes everything black and white so that no decisions need to be made and no conflict arises. Jake kills the faceless humans and no effort is given to depict the numerous innocent humans he kills when he destroys the massive ships. Avatar leaves nothing for interpretation. Nobody will leave the theater after watching Avatar wondering what they would do in Jake’s position. Cameron leaves no room for discussion of intentions or resolutions as the entire film is void of any ambiguity.
It is possible that Cameron was so concerned with his new film technologies being viewed as a success that he feared taking the slightest risk when writing the screenplay. When you hear an interview with him, his entire emphasis is on Avatar’s technological innovations and what this technology will mean for the future of filmmaking. By using a familiar and successful story for showcasing this technology he will increase the funding for future motion capture and 3D projects. Thanks to the success of Avatar he can now pitch his dream projects like Titanic 3D. Not a joke, THIS WILL HAPPEN! I just hope Titanic 3D doesn’t win best picture…again. Because of its technological achievements Avatar deserves to win Art Direction, Film Editing, and almost every technical award available. Cameron’s focus was on these technical aspects, and he deserves to be rewarded for those aspects of his film. But unfortunately, this same attention and emphasis wasn’t placed on the film’s screenplay.
Another example of Cameron removing any complexities or intrigue from Avatar is the political overtones. Everyone who watches Avatar is going to notice the thinly disguised messages in the film. Cameron doesn’t let us interpret the actions and emotions of the characters to derive personal meanings from the film. Instead he clumsily forces the films messages down our throats. An example of his overt political messages can be exemplified by the Na’vi. The Na’vi culture and customs bear a strong resemblance to the culture and customs of Native Americans. Considering the creativity shown in some aspects of the film (the depiction of Pandora’s flora for example), shouldn’t the Na’vi culture have been a little more … alien? Cameron’s heavy handed symbology conveys his distaste for the treatment of Native Americans by the United States and European nations. Cameron also shares his feelings about the US’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. He depicts the advanced military power as a group of soulless trigger-happy invaders who are completely motivated by profit. Cameron draws easily noticeable parallels between the bad economy and the dependence on unobtainium in Avatar and our current bad economy and dependence on oil. The poor presentation of these messages can be exemplified by Jake Sully’s voice over in the beginning of the film. “They can fix a spinal if you’ve got the money, but not on vet benefits. Not in this economy.” Adding the line ‘Not in the economy’ does not provide us with a better understanding of Jake, but instead is a sloppy way for Cameron to pass along his message. All of his messages would have been much more effective if they hadn’t been so obvious and poorly constructed.
Avatar’s main competition for winning the Oscar for Best Picture is The Hurt Locker. While Avatar fails at delivering thoughtful and subtle messages, The Hurt Locker performs this feat perfectly. Screenwriter Mark Boal spent months with the troops in Iraq and he was able to provide us with meaningful and insightful revelations about the conflicts in the Middle East. After I finished the film I discovered that the film means different things to different people. Because viewers had diverse interpretations of The Hurt Locker’s content, they were more likely to explore the issues of the film further by discussing of the occupation of Iraq and the psychology of the solider. This film created a more gratifying film experience that stayed with me long after I finished watching the film.
It is interesting that either The Hurt Locker or Avatar will win Best Picture, because the winner will either have one of the highest revenues ever or one of the lowest revenues ever. Financially, the difference between the films is staggering. The Hurt Locker was hindered by poor timing and marketing which limited the film’s availability and distribution. I was unable to see The Hurt Locker in the theater because it was only in one theater and was only showing certain weeks. But Avatar I saw twice (once in 3D). Should the Academy give Avatar an advantage because people like me spent $50 on Avatar and $0 on The Hurt Locker?
2009 also premiered J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Star Trek shared many similarities to Avatar. Both were fun action packed science fiction films that had their share of plot flaws. Star Trek’s strengths came from its fantastic ensemble cast performance, which created great relationships and interesting character developments. Avatar’s strengths were its amazing special effects. But Star Trek wasn’t even one of the ten films that were nominated, and Avatar is the Best Picture favorite. One possible explanation for this disparity is that the Academy loved Avatar’s political messages. I fear that the Academy has rallied behind these political themes, and as a result Avatar is the Best Picture frontrunner. This makes me wonder if Star Trek featured messages opposing the occupation of Iraq or if it had pro-environmental messages, would the Academy be considering Star Trek for Best Picture? I do not hold exception with Avatar’s political messages, I simply object with how the shallow messages were presented in the film.
When I thought of Avatar in the context of an action science fiction film, I can fully recommend it as a fun and exciting film. But once I read it was an Oscar favorite for Best Picture, the screenplay’s flaws seem magnified. This post was intended to be short, but as I continued thinking of the film I repeatedly discovered aspects of the screenplay I despised.
Last year Dark Knight provided us with all around great acting performances highlighted by an unforgettable performance by Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan’s screenplay was complex and his direction was riveting. Dark Knight is superior to Avatar in almost every way possible, but even though Dark Knight was well received and widely admired it was not given an Oscar nomination. Many people including myself thought of this as a snub. It shouldn’t have won Best Picture, but it deserved to be nominated. This is important because currently the Academy is desperate to improve its popularity. In an effort to change general perception they have already made the radical switch to 10 Best Picture nominees. I envision that the Academy will continue to be progressive in its response to last year’s criticism of the Dark Knight snub by giving Avatar the Best Picture nod. It is a strange turn of events which may cause Avatar, a truly unworthy film, to be named Best Picture