(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 17.)
The Hollywood hype machine is shifting into overdrive as Academy Awards night approaches.
Until two weeks ago, James Cameron’s futuristic epic Avatar – made with substantial input from Weta Digital in Wellington – was considered a shoo-in for the all-important Best Picture and Best Director awards, and probably a swag of others as well.
Now another, lower-key contender, The Hurt Locker, has entered the running. When the Oscar nominations were announced, The Hurt Locker scored nine – the same number as the much-hyped Avatar.
So Oscars night is shaping up to be a dramatic contest between these two very different films, and what makes the showdown even more piquant is that the director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, is the former wife of Avatar mastermind Cameron.
A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have contrived a more compelling scenario. In fact you don’t have to be a hardened cynic to suspect that what we are seeing is a contest carefully orchestrated to maximise public interest.
So, what of the films themselves? The Hurt Locker has yet to be released here, so I can’t comment on its merits. But it would have to be a very dire film to be worse than Avatar.
Never in the history of the cinema has so much money, and so much creative talent, been invested in such a stinker of a film.
Avatar is tolerably watchable for the first hour or so but then gets progressively sillier, to the point where I had to stifle the urge to laugh out loud. It is never more than a kids’ film, which makes it all the more baffling that normally intelligent critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.
To make matters worse, Avatar bashes viewers around the head with a heavy-handed, moralistic message about rapacious American capitalism. Never mind the irony that the film is itself a product of the same American capitalism that it condemns and has done exactly the job it was intended to do, which was to make truckloads of money.
The basic theme of Avatar – in which an infiltrator, planted amid an alien race to facilitate their exploitation by a mining corporation, has an attack of conscience and changes sides – isn’t even original. The film has been compared with Dances With Wolves (indeed it has been described as Dances With Wolves in space) and the animated Disney film Pocahontas.
Avatar's theme also had echoes of the 1983 British film Local Hero, in which the colourful inhabitants of a Scottish fishing village charm a representative from a Texan oil company that wants to build a refinery where their houses are.
Unlike those films, Avatar depends entirely on visual effects, which admittedly are spectacular. The characters are never more than cardboard cutouts, the screenplay sounds like a parody of every third-rate sci-fi movie ever made, and the acting is laughably wooden.
I reviewed Avatar on my blog after seeing it without the benefit of the 3D glasses available at some screenings. Two people then attached comments to my blog saying I needed to see the film in 3D to appreciate it fully – which said it all, really. Anyone who thinks a bad film can be magically transformed into a good one simply by putting on 3D glasses is missing something.
The comments on my blog confirmed that some movie-goers are now so accustomed to silly, big-budget spectacles that they no longer look for cinematic qualities such as a coherent plot, intelligent dialogue and convincing characters. Hollywood has persuaded them to buy the sizzle and overlook the fact that there’s no steak.
In recent years we have seen a string of preposterous, expensive epics that depend for their impact on noise, visual effects and stunt-driven, non-stop action – tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, to quote Shakespeare. Most are pitched at the adolescent schoolboy fantasy level and are so absurd that they defy rational critical scrutiny.
It’s heresy to say this, but I count Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong in this category. The latter was one of the silliest films I’ve seen – a waste, it seemed to me, of Jackson’s undoubted ability.
As for Lord of the Rings, I patriotically sat through two of the films in the trilogy but admit that for much of the time I had no idea what was going on and, worse, couldn’t have cared less. I was bored rigid and even drifted off to sleep in one of them. (I can't remember which one because with the passage of time, the two films have melded in my brain to the point where they are undistinguishable.)
In the light of my previous experiences I went to Avatar hoping to be impressed but expecting to be disappointed. I sat out the entire 162 minutes (162 minutes!) only because I was curious to see whether it could get any sillier. It did.
This was an act of unusual stoicism for me. Back in the 1990s, my two then-teenage sons were shocked and appalled that I walked out of Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s much-lauded kilts-and-swords epic. Since then I have lost count of the number of Hollywood spectacles I have walked out of, or switched off after about 10 minutes when they have been screened on TV. Life is too short to waste watching bad films.
Braveheart, of course, went on to win five Academy Awards, confirming my suspicion that the Oscars have less to do with intrinsic, enduring cinematic values than other factors, such as what’s fashionable and who the Hollywood establishment has decided to pay obeisance to.
Occasionally even the pretentiously titled Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will get it right and give the Best Picture award to a film that deserves it, as happened in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. But it’s a fair bet that any list of the greatest and most memorable films of all time would exclude an awful lot of Oscar winners.
It will be entirely consistent with history if Avatar cleans up when the awards are announced, just as James Cameron’s last spectacle, the overwrought Titanic, did. But I reckon the only award Avatar deserves is for Sigourney Weaver, an intelligent and capable actress, for managing to keep a straight face through the whole ridiculous affair.