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Avatar Fans Blue Over Oscar Loss

The Academy Awards have come and gone, leaving in their wake the usual amount of discussion and arguing over why movie X should have won Y award. It’s no different this year, and the science fiction genre has lost out on its chance to take home the gold, with Avatar losing out on Best Picture and Best Director to Kathryn Bigalow’s Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker. No doubt, Avatar fans are feeling a bit blue over this.

Avatar was a bit of a favorite for the Best Picture award due to its enormous take in the box office, helping to rejuvenate movie goers into seeing something truly breathtaking. Still, despite the numbers and the visual presence on the big screen, the film really didn’t deserve the top honors that it was nominated for – it was a bit of a surprise on my part that the film was even nominated for the Best Picture and Best Director slots in the first place, for a couple of reasons…


First, and foremost, Avatar was a huge film that wowed crowds because of its visual spectacle. While watching, I was blown away by the effects, the world, everything with how the film looked on screen. With a bit of reflection, the story decidedly didn’t wow a lot of people. It was shallow, predicable, and not something to bring people to over and over again. That’s fine – Cameron has never been one for subtlety – (Giant ships sinking, Robots from the Future, Aliens attacking bases in large numbers, etc) – and the film worked for what it was. Indeed, it won for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects, the real stars of the show here. In the end, The Hurt Locker was a stronger, more relevant story that easily topped Avatar in the elements that really define the award: Story.

Second, Hollywood loves an underdog, and what better film than the tiny Hurt Locker to win against the half-billion dollar Avatar?

But when you look at it, there were plenty of other contenders for best picture that would have better represented the genre for the top picks from the public. District 9 was a long shot to begin with, only included because of the larger slot of movies, but Inglorious Bastards certainly also falls under the Speculative Fiction category, and we’ll throw that one in there because otherwise, people will yell at us. Both movies were good, with a lot of meaning and arguably better stories than Avatar, and no doubt would have done the genre proud as the first to win the Best Picture award.

But, while we’re talking about Story, this brings up one of my biggest complaints about the Academy Awards this year, and that’s where Moon was overlooked for Best Picture and Best Actor, for Sam Rockwell’s role as Sam Bells A, 1, 2 and 3. We can throw in Duncan Jones for a Best Director nod as well, because he did the whole thing for under $5 million. For me, Moon was the strongest picture that I saw all last year, with a fantastic, thoughtful and emotional storyline that made it a shining example for what a Science Fiction film should be: rich in story, special effects that supported said story.

But, I don’t need an award notation or a statue in some director’s office to really be able to appreciate a film such as Moon, District 9 or Inglorious Bastards. I like them well enough as they are.

So, the Hurt Locker won, depriving the genre of a potential win (and therefore, according to some people, legitimizing the genre, showing that Geeks really are cool), but in doing so, it helped to preserve what makes the award good in the first place: it shows that story is still important, rather than the end result of box office figures and overblown special effects. Because if that was the case, Transformers 3 would be a sure contender for best picture, and nobody wants that.

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at www.andrewliptak.com and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

18 Comments on Avatar Fans Blue Over Oscar Loss

  1. antares // March 9, 2010 at 4:25 am //

    Well said, sir.  

  2. I friend tweeted me this link:

    http://www.slashfilm.com/2010/01/05/sony-says-moon-oscar-screeners-were-held-back-due-to-piracy-concerns/

    which points out that Moon wasn’t overlooked, just that the idiots at Sony didn’t submit it because they were worried about piracy. Yeah. I still can’t believe it.

  3. I am still confused as to what The Hurt Locker did that was so brilliant that it deserved best movie and director? I am not saying it wasn’t a good movie it was, but I don’t think it was great in any real regard (well apart from providing a better story than the billion dollar juggernaut of Avatar).

    I am disappointed that Moon was overlooked, as I felt it deserved a nod, but actually any gongs. I am also curious to some of the praise it is getting as I found the 2nd act of the movie to be completely underwhelming, it introduced a staple of the scifi world and lingered on it for a good chunk of the movie but did nothing to explore the concept or what it actually meant for the characters or their lives.

    2009 was a disappointing year at the cinema for me, there are few movies that really stood out as being fantastic and some of what I felt were the best movies of the year were never going to get a serious look at gold. Movies such as Zombieland, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, Che parts 1&2.

    The one movie that I am really surprised didn’t pick up a lot of oscar heat was Inviticus, for me it tips all the boxes that I tend to associate with the best Oscar films, great cast, superb script and acting and based on a truely moving (real) story. Nevermind that it was a Clint Eastwood movie.

  4. @ Felix – Yup that reads to me like a big barrel of bull droppings. It was already available for pirates long before the oscar build up started.

  5. @Felix – I think it simply came down to money. Moon was a movie made for $5 million. Oscar campaigns run into the hundreds of thousands, and I think that Sony just didn’t want to front the capital. It’s a shame, but he

     

    @Andy – Well, I think a couple of things moved in Hurt Locker’s favor. It was a small, highly relevant film. They always tend to do pretty well, and the whole field seemed to just polarize on those two. Part of it was the background politics of the Academy, but Hurt Locker was a good film, well acted, interesting, etc. I think it certainly had its flaws, but up against the whole field, I think it was probably the best film out there (Although in a perfect world, I think Precious should have been a stronger contender.)

    As far as Moon, I thought the whole thing was solid – it did have elements that were used before, but that’s not necessarily a killer for me, it’s how it was executed. Sam 1’s breakdown towards the end, after he called home was possibily one of the best moments, in my own opinion. Never did see Invitcus…

  6. The thing about Moon is that it was good enough to get the nod for the gongs I felt. I also suspect that if it had got one it would have given the movie a whole new life with relevant earnings, more than enough to pay back its push. The problem is that it was scifi, and not the kind with flashy cgi that make the money. Sony just weren’t intreseted in trying to push it.

    I get that THL hits a note, and I still think its a good movie just not as good as previous Oscar winners compare it to most of the other winners and it falls short. As for Invitcus I really enjoyed it, the story it tells is a great one, nevermind the quality movie that Eastwood, Freeman and Damon made.

  7. I agree with pretty much everything Andy said.  Majorly disappointing year for movies.  The Hurt Locker was an average war movie, nothing more.  D9 never deserved a nomination, even if it was entertaining and well made (now, if it had been more well adapted from Alive in Joburg with the politics and whatnot, I have no doubt it would have been the best of the year) .  I also think Moon passed on a lot of good storytelling oportunities.  Frankly, it just didn’t approach originality.

    I still believe Where the Wild Things Are was the best movie of last year.

    And the day Sandra Bullock beats Meryl Streep is the day the world begins to end.

  8. Matte Lozenge // March 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm //

    Up had sf-nal elements and atmosphere, and it won best animated feature. It was a great kids flick, but was it better than the other animated nominees? They are all sf/fantasy, and I haven’t seen any of them … yet.

  9. @Matte – You know, I was puzzled at this – what if the film had won both Best Animated Feature and Best Picture? People would scream bloody murder that the two awards were redundant, and so forth. I really liked it, but I didn’t think that it was any better than most of the films on there. I would have choosen Hurt Locker and District 9 over it. 

  10. Bob Blough // March 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm //

    Andrew,

    Right on the money – Cameron’s inability to write an honest human being made AVATAR less than the best.  It got the awards it deserved –  the effects and visuals were stunning.

    HURT LOCKER was one of my favorite movies of the year – but I was secretly hoping foe AN EDUCATON to win – now that was a well written character piece.

    INVICTUS was very good – Clint Eastwood is on a roll but again, the screenplay was not the best.

    Streep had the best performance of the year but Bullock is underappreciated so…still not my choice but not too upsetting.  Streep better win again soon or I will be angry.

    MOON was my favorite SF film this year – and did win some big awards in England.

  11. Regarding a comparison between Avatar and Moon, I just wrote about the two films on my blog: the post is, Saving Science Fiction From Itself?

    Yet, to your post specifically ….

    First, and foremost, Avatar was a huge film that wowed crowds because of its visual spectacle. While watching, I was blown away by the effects, the world, everything with how the film looked on screen. With a bit of reflection, the story decidedly didn’t wow a lot of people. It was shallow, predicable, and not something to bring people to over and over again.

    Actually, I’ve seen Avatar four times now — because of the “visual spectacle” and because of the story. In fact, the story got stronger each time I saw the film, as I steadily realized how purposeful and nuanced Cameron’s script is. I suspect, too, that the story is sufficiently wowing enough people to gross over $2 billion worldwide, much of that repeat business. There must be something more to the film than merely how it looks, no?

    Thus, your comment is of the sort that I find both intriguing and troubling. You are suggesting (as many do) that, in effect, Avatar is all surface and no depth. On one hand, the many debates about and discussions of various issues in the film indicate that it is far from “shallow,” whether people attack it for or defend its politics (i.e., anti-war, anti-American, environmentalist, colonialist, etc.). Rarely has a film, let alone an SF film, achieved such a global reach in this respect. On the other hand, film is a primarily visual medium, it tells stories with the visual devices available to it (colour, lighting, scene composition, angle of shot, type of shot, length of shot, costume, make-up, CGI, etc.): to be “blown away” by Avatar‘s “visual spectacle” and then to dismiss its story as superficial almost seems contradictory, but also implies that Cameron did not pay proper (or any) attention to the story.

    I know that I’ll be in the minority, but I suggest that the “visual spectacle” of Avatar is so spectacular because of the story — for the film encourages the viewer to become invested in the stunningly beautiful and fascinating world of Pandora through the characters and the events in which they are involved. The story is “predictable” only in so far as Cameron relies upon archetypes; Avatar distinguishes itself by the specifics of how the characters get to where they need to be by the story’s end (as well as by its visual power).

     

    Both movies were good, with a lot of meaning and arguably better stories than Avatar, and no doubt would have done the genre proud as the first to win the Best Picture award.

    “Better” in what ways, exactly? Does Avatar thus have a paucity of “meaning”? Would Avatar have done the genre a disservice by winning Best Picture?

    Cameron attends to everything that makes for good (even great) storytelling, yet he is persistently criticized for predictability and being clichéd. Avatar exemplifies all the qualities that constitute SF’s unique power to provide stories that stir, inspire, and challenge the imagination, yet the film is persistently denigrated within the SF&F community.

    The films you cite as good examples of SF, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds (and Moon), are all in effect dystopias, hence offering dark and uncertain worlds. Avatar, in contrast, is on one level about the preservation and defense of a utopia, and so overall it is bright and affirmative and hopeful. I am unsure why Avatar thus makes for poor storytelling and poor SF … almost as if we are uncomfortable with SF that gives us optimism and catharsis.

    (That written, I also absolutely loved District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and Moon — as great films, as great SF. I am just struck by the prevalence of the attitude in the SF&F community that Avatar is a film by which we should be disappointed, even embarrassed.)

     

    [… The Hurt Locker] shows that story is still important, rather than the end result of box office figures and overblown special effects. 

    First, I will say that The Hurt Locker was definitely a worthy Best Picture winner. It is a superbly, masterfully crafted film, right from the opening shot.

    Yet why the backhanded swipe at Avatar?

    Earlier in your post, you write how you were “blown away” by Avatar‘s “visual spectacle,” but now that visual wonder is merely “overblown special effects”? Also, those “box office figures” say something about the film’s power and quality, no? When a film reaches the sort of sustained worldwide (financial) success such as achieved by Avatar, that suggests the film is doing something right, no — that (many) people are, perhaps, connecting with the story?

    Avatar would have been a worthy Best Picture winner, too. It brought spectacle back to the film theatre. It utilised new film technology to create that spectacle, providing a nearly unique film experience. It advanced and expanded the possible ways in films can tell stories. Instead of tanking, as many originally predicted it would, it soared to record-breaking success. It was an event, unlike any film in recent memory.

    I do not want to imply that your response to and feelings about Avatar are wrong. Someone doesn’t like a film, then someone doesn’t like a film. Rather, I am more concerned with the way(s) in which Avatar is criticised and dismissed by a fair number in the SF&F community: which to me seems like an anxiety to keep Avatar out of the club, so to speak — and I’m unsure why.

     

  12. @ Mike – Sorry but the basic plot for Avatar sucked, it may have ticked many of the boxes that make for a great movie. The changing balance between protagonist and antagonist, the under dog triumphing against the evil immoral corporation , love and redemption and all the rest play to classic story telling ideas.

    However it is still a load of rotting tripe, the characterisations are paper thin, from the ‘evil’ corp manager to the braindead military officer, the plucky rebelious pilot, the scientists and not to mention the Navi. The plot is just bizarre, the supposedly intelligent military officer throws away pretty much every advantage he has to attack the Navi on their home turf in a manner that lets them fight back, when he could have crushed them quite simply. For me a lot of the problems occured because I think Cameron knew what scenes he wanted, what cliff hangers he wanted and then worked backwards from their to write a story that got him to where he wanted to be.

    The reality as I see it is that loads of SciFi fans want to love this movie, they want it to be a breakout movie that will drag the mainstream into scifi and on a superficial level it has. But they also know that Avatar will have no real lasting effect, once the next big blockbuster comes out it will be forgotten, and they fear worse that when it comes out on DVD/BR and people see it at home on the small 2D screen they will see behind the curtain and just laugh at it and scifi again – the emperor will be seen as being naked.

    Avatar was a great movie experience, I have seen it twice in 3D (1st normal and then Imax) and both times I was fully wrapped up in the movie and the world. But I loved it inspite of its huge shortcommings as a movie. If they handed out an Oscar for movie/cinematic experience then I can’t think of a better winner than Avatar (hell I think they should have created a special award just for Avatar), its probably the best movie experience since Jurrasic Park or maybe even Starwars, but best movie don’t make me laugh.

  13. Mark Stephenson // March 10, 2010 at 10:48 am //

    Whatever the relative merits or shortcomings of Avatar, as a lifelong SF fan (more years than I will post here) it tickles me pink that the highest grossing film of all time is a straight-up science fiction movie.  In fact, SF films have pretty much owned the highest grossing list off and on for decades, only to have Avatar blow the doors off.  If SF is still a genre “ghetto,” it is a very high rent one.  More like a gated community with four-starship garages next to every house.  The geeks win again…

    The whole “best picture” argument has always been a red herring anyway.  There were 10 films in competition, each one as different from one another as night and day.  Apples, oranges, avocados and spinach.  Pick one.  Whatever…

     

  14. @ Andy W: “Sorry but the basic plot for Avatar sucked, …. However it is still a load of rotting tripe, …. The plot is just bizarre, ….”

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. 🙂

    Your own words are somewhat contradictory, actually: on one hand, the film “sucked” and was “tripe” and “bizarre,” yet on the other hand it was also a “great movie experience” that had you “fully wrapped up in the movie and the world.”

    The latter reaction suggests that in fact Cameron succeeded with plot and story, for I’m not sure there can be one without the other (i.e., a great and immersive experience can’t really happen without strong plotting and story). The “world” of the film, of any narrative, is just as crucial an element of the plot and story as characters and events.

    As I wrote previously, Cameron’s script is very purposeful. Little is left to chance; each scene serves a specific function; and everything that gets set up in the first half of the film bears fruit in the second half. The way you describe Avatar‘s plot and story would seem to apply more accurately to a film such as Transformers 2, which is definitely SF about which we should be embarrassed.

     

    […] the supposedly intelligent military officer throws away pretty much every advantage he has to attack the Navi on their home turf in a manner that lets them fight back, when he could have crushed them quite simply.

    Quaritch is more than simply a “braindead military officer,” however.

    One point to address is that he is a mercenary: on Pandora, he is “Head of Security,” even if his people call him “General.” We learn very early in the film that all the military personnel on Pandora are hired help, even Jake — former marines, and the like. Quaritch’s approach to dealing with the Na’vi stems from this key aspect of his character: he is not carrying out the orders of a country, but of a company, though he maintains and enforces a military-style chain of command and attitude.

    A second point to address is why he attacks the Na’vi as you describe. His “shock and awe campaign” against the Na’vi is born out of hubris, both his and Selfridge’s. It is the hubris of the colonist, the colonial and colonizing power: secure and confident in superior technology, superior culture, and superior moral rightness. More significantly, it is the hubris of the corporate/capitalist colonist … as a clear reflection of the Bush era. Remember that Quaritch wants to “blow a hole in their racial memory” so massive that the Na’vi won’t come “within one thousand clicks” of the Tree of Souls, and he expects little resistance on the way, letting all know he wants “to be home for dinner.” Success is assumed. He did not, apparently, learn the lesson of his first day on Pandora when he got that nasty scar on his head that he prefers to wear as a sort of badge.

     

    The reality as I see it is that loads of SciFi fans want to love this movie, they want it to be a breakout movie that will drag the mainstream into scifi and on a superficial level it has. But they also know that Avatar will have no real lasting effect, once the next big blockbuster comes out it will be forgotten, ….

    I think it’s far too soon for such predictions of Avatar‘s supposedly inevitable irrelevance and obscurity.

    Besides, any future “blockbuster” that would erase peoples’ memory of Avatar would have to be an event on the same, if not on a larger, scale than Avatar. A film that grosses over $2 billion will likely not ever really be “forgotten” as easily or swiftly as you suggest.

    (In any case, the “next big blockbuster” on the scale of Avatar is probably the sequel.)

    The “mainstream” has been dragged into SF for a long time now, specifically through film, TV, and video games. As Mark Stephenson notes, SF has been a highly successful marketing category for years, let’s say at least since the late 1970s with Star Wars, but even since the 1950s. Avatar gives SF a global presence that has been achieved only by a few other films/franchises (The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, most recently).

    Where you see superficiality, surface, and illusion, I see a film that will instead reveal more and more substance and prove persistently relevant over time. Will it be surpassed some day by another film? Probably.

    At this moment, however, I think you’re underestimating the power Avatar has for many people, especially in a time when the worldwide mood seems predominantly dystopian (financial crisis, environmental disasters, terrorism, war and violent conflicts, etc.).

     

  15. I ain’t sure what you are confused about Mike, I enjoyed Avatar I think as a movie experience (seeing it in 3D on the big/Imax screen) it was great. However as soon as I started to think about the plot/characters I felt the movie really fell to peices.

    As for my comments about future blockbusters eclipsing Avatar, maybe that didn’t come out right. What I meant is that I think Avatar will become just another in a long line of blockbusters that has made megabucks (in fact the most) that rapidly fade from public memory when the next big blockbuster comes along. Yes it has the claim of being the 1st really successful 3D film and thats a mark for the history books in its favour, but I would imagine in a couple of years time there will be half a dozen films that have blown its 3D effects out of the water.

  16. It was unethical for AVATAR not to get best picture.

    Quite simply box office alone should have indicated that it was the prime candidate. How many people on this message board recently made a $2 billion movie? No one, because they haven’t got the skill.

    Jim gets flack because we’ve seen aspects of his film before. But think for a second what the definition of high art actually is: something simple, consummately done.

    Remember of The Beatles song “Yesterday”? Is is the most complex ditty? No, it’s a simple song conveying universal truth: just like Avatar.

    Jim took a basic story and executed it beyond recognition: the result was a new art form. Other artists are now clamoring the world over for the technology he developed.

    It’s very hard to make the “best picture” case for THE HURT LOCKER because no one’s seen it and no one ever will.

    My feeling it that Jim was hard done by on Oscar night. How can we not agree that Avatar 3D was a popular story executed to perfection?

    For this he should have received the highest honor.

  17. What has the amount of money the movie has made got to do with how good it is? The Oscars are about quality about recognising the ‘best’, they aren’t popularist awards and if they where I doubt many Hollywood movies would get a look in as Bollywood and Asian Cinema get 10x the amount of viewings simply because they play to bigger audiences.

  18. Well, there’s a couple points to this – I thought that Avatar really lacked in story and characterization. There was no subtlety to the story in almost all regards, and for me, story is far more important that the visual style. The story had purpose, no doubt – there’s heavy environmental / anti-corporate message here, but the presence of such a theme isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for – it needed to be less heavy handed than it was. I suspect that a lot of it was dumbed down a bit, and I don’t begrudge them of that – the end result is pretty fantastic. 

    There is a difference though, between the number of themes and messages in the story. Environmentalism, political and corporate themes on their own aren’t superficial – the way they were used in the story was. I don’t need to be wowed by a movie on all fronts to be impressed with it – the movie as a package was mixed, where I liked elements, disliked other parts. In this instance, I don’t believe that Cameron paid his dues to a solid story. 

    In this instance, there’s a separation between the world-building and background and the actual story narrative. I was indeed wowed by the efforts that went into Pandora and its world, but the actual characters didn’t leave me with a whole lot to work with. 

     

    Other films on the list were better because they featured better and more interesting character stories, more nuanced and more creative elements in their storylines and as a whole, were far superior films. Would Avatar have done a disservice to the genre? No, but to the award itself? I think so. 

     

    Cameron isn’t someone I’d ever point to as a ‘Great’ filmmaker. He’s a popular one for sure, and he’s done some great movies, such as Terminator and Terminator 2, but Avatar doesn’t fall under that category for me. Science Fiction is always about story, no matter what characters or planets they’re on, and when you put together a movie that relies so heavily on archetypes, that’s diminished in a large way. Avatar didn’t really make me think, it didn’t make me concerned for any of the characters and it had a story that I knew pretty much what would happen walking into the movie. The examples that you cite have purpose, but merely the feeling of wonder isn’t enough. Science fiction, going way back to some of its earlier stories, have a lot of depth behind them – they’re representing contemporary issues in a fantastic setting, dystopia or otherwise. Again, there’s a difference between the theme and the actual way that the story is carried out. Avatar had a lot of pluses in this regard, it just fell flat on the actual execution. 

     

    In regard to your last point, Avatar is a visual spectacle, just as a lot of other movies have the same look and feel. The film is immersive, to be sure, but in this instance, the special effects drive the story, not the other way around. The example that I usually point to is Serenity vs. Revenge of the Sith, where two movies use top of the line special effects, but in the end, one uses the story to drive the effects, and the other is the other way around. When it comes to box-office numbers, I’ll point to popular doesn’t necessarily mean great. To me, what that indicates is that it’s an accessible story, something that a lot of people can enjoy, but that’s independent of the story itself, that’s the effect. This is also why shows such as American Idol and other reality shows are still on the air, they’re very popular. That doesn’t necessarily make them good shows. 

     

    In the end, it comes down to personal preference. For me, and I know a lot of other people, Avatar wasn’t a strong film. It was fun, but that’s about all.

     

    @Richard – I disagree completely. The box-office pull doesn’t have anything to do with a film’s quality. 

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