Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Beneath The Surface: Avatar and The Hurt Locker

The possibility of Best Director and Best Picture coming down to a contest between  Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and her ex-husband James Cameron (Avatar) has Academy followers positively teeming with anticipation.  The Academy loves stories like this; they’re both so talented. They both made movies dealing with war.  And oh gosh, they were married. But now they’re divorced!  Who will take home the prize?  More importantly, will they acknowledge the other when he or she is holding that statuette tightly in their hands?

It's the perfect recipe for award show heaven.

Bigelow and Cameron have made impressive, visually stunning films that keep your eyes peeled and your heart racing.  In their own, unique ways, they're both masters of the compelling shot, tight, edge-of-your-seat action and effects that leave you positively bewildered as to how they pulled it all off.  But they've also created work that at times feels uncomfortably forced, contrived, and emotionally shallow.  The commitment to craft and entertainment is clear; the ability to provoke deeper thought and meaningfully connect with an audience isn't.

I saw Avatar twice; once in 3D, once sitting in the front row on Christmas night.  A few scenes absolutely took my breath away.  I could almost taste the air when Jake Sully takes off for his inaugural flight aboard his Ikran (a huge creature that looks something like a pterodactyl.  The panoramic views of Pandora made me feel like the kid in American Beauty--the intensity of the colors, the lushness of the landscape, the diversity of creatures was almost to too much to take in all at the same time.  And I loved watching the long and lean (and Blue Man Group blue) Na'vi effortlessly run through rocky soil, up mile-high trees, and down mammoth waterfalls.  Parts were so real that I forgot it was CGI...and I can't remember the last time I said that.

But here's the thing(s) about Avatar.  The characters have less dimension than our sad sack of politicians.  The dialogue gets so bad that cringing becomes involuntary (Yes, the heartless General actually says "You're not in Kansas anymore, you're in Pandora" as he introduces new recruits to the planet).  Every cheap, emotionally manipulative trick is used to drag you into the narrative.  (Sully, our hero, lost the use of his legs in a previous tour of duty.  But in his Na'vi avatar body, he can walk, run, and kick-ass once more.)  The environmentalist message is poured on thick and feels more like pandering than an authentic point of view.

You know how those huge, glittery, beautiful packages line the store windows at Christmas?  And you know how you can lift off the tops and find them empty inside?  That's pretty much how it is with Avatar.  Worth looking at, not very gratifying.

Despite it being a very different kind of movie, I can say the same thing about Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.  This is a gritty, visual coup d'etat with nuanced performances and effects that make you forget you're watching effects.  Bigelow is a suspense genius.  She opens the door, invites you in, then proceeds to turn up the heat until you don't even realize you're burning alive. 

But take a step back from this cinematic firestorm and maybe you'll come to the same conclusion I did:  The Hurt Locker is a well-made, well-acted film with a serious lack of substance. 

If you're going to take on such complex subject matter--a war happening NOW, with real friends and family serving both in the military and diplomatically--don't you owe them more?  Don't you owe us more?  Is it enough to create a movie that captures the adrenaline of war, but not much else?

We're going on ten years of being embroiled in the Iraq War.  Ten Years.  Many of us know at least one person who is no longer on this planet because of their time in Iraq.  Most of us know more.  Perhaps I wouldn't be as perplexed by this movie if it was released 9 years ago when we were just starting to assimilate what this war looked like for some of the people involved.  Perhaps a piece that stopped at mere observation would sit a little easier.  But at this point, I need more.  I expect more.

The special features on the DVD pushed me over the edge of being disappointed with the intellectualism of the film.  Bigelow and crew sit around commenting on how realistic shooting was; they flew to the Middle East so actors could feel the heat of the desert, the sandstorms beating in their faces.  Listen closely and you'll hear the cockiness of this team, pleased with themselves that they've gotten so close to reality.  But high temperatures, sand, and location does not make for reality.  It's that inability to truly examine their subject matter, the failure to dive deeper into the story, people, and motivations of this war that make it entertainment and not art.

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