This was published on Huffington Post. See it here.
It is movie awards time. The Golden Globes were just handed out and the Oscar race is nearly on. I could not believe Avatar won the Golden Globes award for best picture. Why is it that if a movie is filled with spectacular special effects it is considered a best picture candidate?
Asking this question is some evidence that I think a best picture is one that actually contains characters who show some complexity, or a story that is unique in some way beyond what the film looks like. I simply do not consider as best picture a movie that is unique only on a visual scale. There were so many deliciously brilliant films this year, I’m frustrated that a film whose only merit is visual is sweeping the awards yet again.
If Avatar had been set on earth, with humans riding horses in their beautifully lush jungle, the imperialists coming to destroy the land for profit, it simply would not have been possible best-picture fodder. I doubt it would barely climb out of B-movie-land. The story has been told, and it has been told better. The Mission comes to mind. Even Australia, which had some predictability and overwrought elements, but visually stunning panoramas, was a better film. At least it attempted character development.
However, Avatar is a visually stunning movie, and for that reason alone, everyone is going to see it and it is winning awards. Give us a few years and its effects will not be quite so grand after we’ve seen the same sort of thing a few hundred times. Remember Jurassic Park? The first time I saw that movie I was awestruck. I saw it again recently and while it is moderately entertaining, the dinosaurs are no longer quite so spectacular because I have seen giant CGI creatures so often, I am used to them. Not such a thrill these days.
Halfway through Avatar I was already frustrated by its bland formula and dialogue. The characters on Pandora lacked anything unusual other than what they looked like. Sure, James Cameron spent years creating this “other world,” but that world certainly looked awfully earth-like to me. The characters were prototypical natives, down to their bare feet, the beads in their hair, and feathers in their arrows. There is the tribal chief queen and the royal children destined for marriage. There is the natives’ intrinsic harmony with that land. And let’s not forget their natural-world deity (native Americans, anyone?). Even their alien steeds, both land and air versions, look like horses — albeit with some extra legs and wings, and reins that could connect to their riders’ minds. Yes, in some of the details, the Na’vi were clearly aliens, but nothing about them was unique to the point they were unrecognizable as fundamentally human, something one might expect would occur on a planet somewhere far from earth.
And the human characters, don’t even get me started. They were such caricatures, I could hardly stand to watch some of them. The bad guys were Very Bad. We knew they would be Very Bad the moment they showed up onscreen. The early dialogue in the film was unrealistic, managing to give us all the background we needed in the span of ten minutes. Hyper bad Marine colonel. Check. Scientist who wants to save Pandora and empathizes with the natives. Check. Evil corporate greedy guy. Check. Main character who will save the day. Check. Sexy native woman who is won over by main character. Check. And on and on. None of them had any depth beyond a mud puddle.
I suppose I should not be surprised that a picture so visually breathtaking while simultaneously lacking any depth is considered by many to be the best picture of the year. Spectacle seems to be the theme in so much of America these days. Rather than intelligent debate regarding complex issues, politics has been reduced to screaming sound bites and accusations. The worse the behavior, the more attention it gets. Reality television has mostly replaced anything resembling more complex programming. Spectacularly bad behavior replays constantly where the most loud and obnoxious wins, at least to the extent that the winner gets their face plastered all over the tabloids, their hideous behavior played out ad nauseam.
I liked Avatar. I did. I was moderately entertained when I wasn’t squirming in my seat at the made-for-t.v. movie dialogue. The visual effects were cool. But I just can’t see it as a best-picture candidate. Best means superlative of good, surpassing all others in excellence. Avatar may be the best today for visual effects, but in all other areas it was barely average. No matter how you cut it this just isn’t what a best picture should be.
The consensus is that “Avatar” has pretty much the same story as “Pocahontas” – it’s a very common theme. People like simplicity and familiarity, and familiarity with wowee special effects is even better.