The year 2009 was a good year for American cinema, with many laying a good chunk of the recognition at the feet of James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, Avatar. The film has been nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), eight British Academy Film Awards, and four Golden Globes. It has also received awards and nominations from over 25 different film associations, and just recently surpassed Cameron’s previous film Titanic as the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide. With such a reputable track record, you would think that it would be a shoo-in for winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Think again.
Before any of the Na’vi fanboys jump the gun, allow me to set the record straight. I loved Avatar. I was enthralled the entire 162 minutes. Did it deserve to be nominated for Best Picture? Of course. However, it doesn’t deserve to win. The ‘King of the World”s 2009 blockbuster was the subject of fervent anticipation, just as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was. The difference was Cameron had already delivered, with his 1997 critically (and financially) successful Titanic. Michael Bay was simply an artisan of explosions, witty one-liners, and sensationalism, with a focus on financial gain. We all knew what we were in for with Bay, but we all expected something from Cameron. And besides, if you hadn’t seen Avatar within two weeks of its release, you were considered out of the loop.
Without further ado, these are the five reasons why Avatar should not win Best Picture. This is not a clear-cut Oscar prediction, but a simple conjecture regarding the buzz surrounding the film that exploded at the box office, and its place in the Best Picture category.
1. Star Wars didn’t win Best Picture
It’s no secret that Avatar employed revolutionary visual effects like, as many critics happily recall, Star Wars did back in 1977. Both are regarded as technological breakthroughs in respect to their generations, and it’s true. My father described his experience of sitting in the theater watching the original Star Wars, and it sounded remarkably similar to the experience I (and millions of others) had with Avatar. Roger Ebert called it “an event”, and that’s exactly what it was. With such a large array of similarities, it’s only expected that Avatar be nominated for Best Picture, just as Star Wars was. Viewers should note, however, that the film lost to Annie Hall that year for the Oscars’ top award. It’s easy to assume that the same will happen with Avatar.
Now that’s not to say the two films are one in the same. They’re not. But we should be open to looking at this year’s Academy Awards with a historical frame of reference in mind. Take the 1975 Academy Awards for example. Jaws was up for the Best Picture grab that year, but lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Majority of us know that Jaws is more of a visually sustaining crowd-pleaser than Cuckoo’s Nest, but Cuckoo’s Nest is an all-around better movie than Jaws. The same thing applies when comparing Star Wars and Annie Hall, as well as Avatar and a number of other Best Picture contenders this year. The bottom line? Traditional movie elements and substance over pretty images and on-screen surreality, which brings up my next point.
2. Lacks traditional story elements
It’s common knowledge that plot, character interaction, theme, and overall emotional strength is paramount in defining a film’s caliber. Visuals aren’t everything, and I fear a good bit of Avatar‘s recognition is being produced solely on that, and that alone. Don’t get me wrong, director James Cameron’s use of new motion-capture animation technology is impressive, and the pictures created were beautiful on the silver screen. But the audience was captivated by images, not characters. That’s not to say the images weren’t extraordinary, but we’re supposed to be drawn to the protagonist, not the technology.
Avatar is a milestone in a fair number of ways. But when it comes to story, character, and what used to make a good movie, it’s just the same old blockbuster.
3. Concept can be attributed to Pocahontas
You’ve probably read this somewhere already. A good bit of Avatar‘s detractors are claiming the film takes a lot of its storyline from other movies. You know how it goes: guy meets girl, both fall in love, men want to destroy girl’s home, guy turns native, guy fights on girl’s side. Many are calling the film’s script a deliberate rip-off. Now I don’t know about that, as I’m sure the concept can’t be that story-specific, however, Avatar‘s plot looks strangely similar to that of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas. Take a look at this rendition of the Pocahontas script. It pulls no punches, yeah, but it’s funny nonetheless. Many fingers have also been pointing to Poul Anderson’s 1957 novella Call Me Joe, which many have claimed to be the source of Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster. Check out a plot synopsis of Call Me Joe:
“Call Me Joe centers on a paraplegic â€“ Ed Anglesey â€“ who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore a harsh planet (in this case, Jupiter). Anglesey revels in the freedom and strength of his artificial created body, battles predators on the surface of Jupiter, and gradually goes native as he spends more time connected to his artificial body.”
Vaguely familiar, yes? You decide. This is also not the first time Cameron has been accused of plagiarizing other material. When he released The Terminator, writer Harlan Ellison “sued the production company claiming the ideas were already in a couple of Outer Limits episodes. The matter was settled out of court, and Ellison got (and still has) a credit on The Terminator.” Although only a few suspect Cameron of plagiarizing other works, it might be something the Academy should consider.
4. Political and religious controversy
Sure, this may be overshadowed by the film’s groundbreaking visual effects and monumental influence, but the Academy may shy away from Avatar because of the political and religious controversy surrounding it. You may remember when the Vatican newspaper and radio station disparaged the movie for its depiction of nature worship, saying that nature appreciation is important, but shouldn’t take the place of religion. But that’s not all the criticism Avatar has been subject to. Armond White of the New York Press wrote that James Cameron “misrepresents the facts of militarism, capitalism, imperialism”, and that the imagery in Avatar “implies that the World Trade Center was also an altar (of U.S. capitalism), yet this berserk analogy exposes Cameron’s contradictory thinking.” White, in conclusion, adds “Cameron offers sci-fi dazzle, yet bungles the good part: the meaning.”
Although many doubt such a thing, a healthy amount of people believe the Academy avoids controversy at all costs, snubbing praiseworthy films for much ‘safer’ ones. If you’re calling me crazy, read this article by our good friends over at In Contention. Penned back in 2008, the feature provides insight into why the Academy might fear controversy. Who would want to place a high honor at the feet of something that caused so much conflict? If this is the case, Avatar may not fit the mold for Best Picture. Besides, if such a film caused such a fuss, does it even deserve the Oscars’ top award? Something to think about.
5. Up against films that are infinitely more canny
Let’s be honest, Avatar is not the best out of all the Best Picture nominees. Although it enjoyed a fair amount of critical acclaim, it doesn’t stand a chance against much stronger films. The Hurt Locker, for example, was bleeding raw and gritty. The drama was real, none of it overdressed by music or sensationalism.Â Inglourious Basterds, however quirky and eccentric, is an expedient addition to the Tarantino filmography. The film’s quixotic director altered history to his own liking, and we loved it. The Best Picture category is littered with phenomenal entries this year, a good number of which trump Avatar in all aspects except one. I think we all know what it is.
The bottom line: Avatar was a good movie. I may even dub it ‘great’. But this year produced a lot of great movies, a fair chunk being overall better films than this one, and that’s okay. Avatar will go down in history as the technological breakthrough that it is, and it will have an overwhelming influence on the future of American cinema. It’s a shoo-in for Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound, Visual Effects, and maybe even Best Director. Who knows? We’ll find out March 7th. Personally, I hope Inglourious Basterds will take home Best Picture, but I’m pretty sure The Hurt Locker has it in the bag.
Who do you think will win Best Picture? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!