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Has the Backlash Started?

March 3rd, 2010

It’s a little late for “Avatar”-fatigue to set in, at least as far as Academy voters are concerned. Their ballots were due in yesterday.

But clearly the attitude of the movie-interested public has changed… We’re glutted on Pandora and her tree-hugging natives, it seems. Oddly, Jim Cameron wrote “Avatar” from a strongly pro-feminine point-of-view, but it seems like the feminine character who is going to best him is… his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, director of the critically acclaimed “The Hurt Locker.” I haven’t checked the conventional Vegas odds, but I’d wager that most of the American movie-going audience is backing ‘the little movie that could.’ Cameron’s picture may have the bucks behind it, but Bigelow’s seems to have won over the moviegoing public by sheer dint of will.

The other side of the coin is that “Avatar,” as successful as it is, has earned critics and detractors along the way. There’s the anti-smoking lobby, who rankle at Sigourney Weaver’s character lighting up onscreen, or feminists, who cite Cameron’s female protagonist as pandering to the female audience. And let’s not forget the film purists who claim “Avatar” isn’t a film in the conventional sense – it’s more like an animated video game. In some instances, all of these arguments hold some water – but, like the ‘unobtanium’ the violent Earth-mercenaries seek, this is all a diversion, or, to put it in movie terms, a “McGuffin.” (As in all Alfred Hitchcock films, a plot device is needed to ‘get the ball rolling,’ plot-wise. This is what Hitchcock referred to as the “McGuffin,” but that explanation can be saved for another time.)

The McGuffin in “Avatar” is the fact that Marines from Earth have come to Pandora to mine ‘unobtanium.’ That is merely the starting-off point for the plot, which is essentially a cross-species love story and a drama defining the conflict between (Earth)-man and nature. It’s heavy stuff, but with Cameron’s ability to marshall action and mine pathos, it’s an easy watch. On the other hand, Bigelow’s film, which might be described as the antithesis of Cameron’s, was shot on location in the sweltering heat of the Jordanian desert, starring mostly a muscular, testosterone-driven cast, with very little in the way of relief. Audiences are accepting Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” because they believe in the sheer human drama of the bomb-defusing technicians the film focuses on. When every moment is life-or-death, life takes on a whole new meaning.

And so the question remains: is there a backlash? And has it made any difference? On Sunday, March 7 we’ll all find out, as the final Academy Award envelope is opened, and the last presenter says “The Academy Award for the Best Picture of 2009 goes to…”

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