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Why Avatar Couldn't Win the Big Oscar


David Suzuki says Avatar creates "a world that is instantly believable", explaining, "the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora are clearly alien but not so profoundly different that we can't identity with them." Actually, they are tall, agile humanoids with tails like some of our primate relatives. They are splendid virtual-reality archetypes. And without the credible story line, the visual effects wouldn't draw anyone so far into the fantasy. It's superficial to compare Avatar to Dances With Wolves, or other movies countering Cowboy-and-Indian stereotypes. Sure, Avatar's audience enters into the devastation of resource colonialism through the eyes of a male "going native", but this doesn't keep the viewer from going all the way. A disabled soldier, left legless from Earthling warfare, being transformed into the body of a Na'vi, is grounded science fiction at its best.

The invading Earthlings are out to destroy the gigantic sacred tree, at the centre of Na'vi life, so they can extract a precious metal. And they undertake this commercial exploit with all the military might of the Pentagon. It's impossible not to be reminded of napalm bombing of Vietnam, or the shock and awe of Cruise Missiles raining over Bagdad. The gargantuan bulldozers grinding down the lush rainforests will be unsettling to anyone who knows what is happening on this planet now. It's an action-packed, futuristic eco-fantasy, but the markers are clear. At the end, the Earthlings, defeated by Na'vi, on flying reptiles, are banished back to their dying planet. No wonder many youth experience resistance leaving the theatre, having to face the realities of endangered species and other ecocide.

The film has been attacked as anti-military, anti-capitalist and pagan. And there's no reason why those who support business-as-usual warfare or ecocide should like it. The question to consider is why Avatar has resonated so widely. Over 200 million people have already seen it. It's the most seen film, ever. The audiences in France are second only to the US, and Germany isn't far behind. Avatar is the most seen film, ever, in Russia. Two-thirds of the viewers are from outside the US, which may have something to do with director, James Cameron, being Canadian, for his intent was clearly not to appease the American Empire. Normally such a stunning blockbuster would be duly awarded, but in spite of record $2.5 billion box-office sales, Avatar's message is too contentious to get Hollywood's highest honour.

AND THE WINNER IS: Hurt Locker was pitched as a docudrama on bomb diffusers in Iraq. For director Kathryn Bigelow the film is indebted to journalist, Mark Boal "who risked his life to capture the tragedy and chaos of war." But the film was tarnished prior to the Oscars, when producers were sued for taking names from the EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) unit in which scriptwriter Boal was imbedded. And, as a Globe and Mail investigation says, the "admirers don't include those who actually do the defusing or destroying of makeshift bombs." For them Hurt Locker was fiction, like Avatar. A real-world EOD expert has explained in detail how unrealistic many of the scenes are. Hurt Locker is, then, a bit like CSI. One producer was even banned from the Awards for aggressive lobbying for his film.

Yet, it's a perfect film to try to put the still controversial invasion of Iraq in a better light. Both the US and UK need a boost to help them forget the mounting evidence that the war was a blatant affront on international law and humanitarianism. And, with this film, those who supported and opposed the war can find common ground. And, anyway, Oscars aren't picked by the millions voting with their feet and pocket books. The Academy is self-appointed; accountable to itself. This year it adopted a preferential voting system, requiring support from over half of voters. Previously, each voted for just one of the five nominated films. With ten films contesting, to try to boost the industry, a film could win with a small block of first-choices. So the 5,777 in the Academy had to rank all ten and votes were then redistributed from the lowest first-choice film to others until one got over 50%. A film starting in 3rd or 4th place could win.

AFFIRMING THE AMERICAN DREAM The last time such voting was used was in 1939, when the bigger-than-life blockbuster "Gone With The Wind" won over classics like Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, and The Wizard of Oz. That was also a challenging time for America, in the wake of the Great Depression and with the rise of fascism. And the Wizard of Oz, itself a pioneer of film technique, also touched some ideological nerves. The Tin Man searching for a heart, the Scarecrow searching for a brain and the Lion searching for courage still resonate. I'll leave it to cultural historians to see whether analogies stand up.

Movies can be a means to an end; they provide a backdrop to the real-life performances by celebrities at Hollywood's gala events. The big story-line this year was about directors Bigelow and Cameron, previously a couple, vying for top honours, and the woman finally winning out. The fact that the movie was a low-budget, underdog indie film helped fuel the drama. The die was probably cast when Hurt Locker won best film and director at the British Academy of Film and TV Arts, for the Yanks weren't going to be outdone by their allies, the Brits.

The Academy wasn't going out on a limb with Oprah by picking Precious, a film about an overweight, black, female victim of sexual abuse. That's too much "victimization" and too contentious to reaffirm the American Dream. Hurt Locker is a safe movie. It doesn't polarize people over warfare or challenge them about ecocide, and is cautious about identity politics. And the real winner: is Hollywood.

Next week I'll explore Avatar's unintended message about sustainability.