Avatar, the Oscars and War Movies…

From our recent Big Island trip, a shop that specializes in da kine gecko stuff!

Just got back from a week of R&R on Kona with my wife, Isabel. Perfect weather for snorkeling, tennis and a little golf. Also watched some of the Academy Awards while we were there, and was disappointed that AVATAR didn’t win for Best Picture… not that it was the best-written or most original plot. But it’s a game changer for the movie biz. The 3-D technology gave me a reason to go see a film in a theater instead of waiting for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it at home, free of irksome idiots who talk or make noise throughout the movie.

Frankly, I thought THE HURT LOCKER was overrated. Good movie, solid acting, directing. But in the end, what’s it about? War is hell, sure. Being a soldier or defusing bombs is nasty business — it’s a job though, and someone’s gotta do it, right? In a way, that’s a central theme in AVATAR too. Both films are about choosing the military as an occupation. What makes AVATAR better in my opinion, is James Cameron isn’t afraid to make a statement about the politics — and economics — of war. HURT LOCKER doesn’t go there, and some critics praised it for being apolitical. To me, that’s a cop out though.

The people who panned AVATAR cite other movies with similar plots and themes. For instance, someone took a synopsis of Disney’s POCAHONTAS and crossed out those character names, then scrawled in the names from AVATAR above them. Others have compared it to DANCES WITH WOLVES. What they all have in common are capitalistic industrial-military societies imposing their will on native cultures that don’t have the same materialistic values as ours.

In POCAHONTAS, the Western explorers were seeking new lands to lay claim to. In DANCES WITH WOLVES, the U.S. military is looking to take more land from the natives. In AVATAR, they want “Unobtanium” — in Iraq, it was really all about the oil, wasn’t it? Yet does HURT LOCKER even raise the question of why these guys are in the Middle East, risking their lives? Nope. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on new meaning in that movie.

I’m not saying HURT LOCKER should’ve been a Michael Moore type screed against Bush/Cheney and American Imperialism. But at least give us a point of view other than “it’s just my job.” Even on that level, the film doesn’t tell us much about the main characters. What’s their motivation — is it a paycheck or the adrenaline rush? In every generation there are macho guys who want to destroy things and kill people. Thank god, because I don’t want to go kill the enemy. Yet some of them are clearly addicted to violence as a lifestyle choice, which is reinforced by video games and, yes, movies. At least TOP GUN had some sexy scenes and rocking musical montages.

What people don’t give Cameron enough credit for is constructing a script that aptly sets up later action sequences. As a writer who has tried to do just that in my own screenplays, I can tell you it’s much harder than it looks. Next time you watch AVATAR, note how small details and lines in early scenes are paid off in later big moments.

And I bet nearly all of you were rooting against the human military machine — the Americans — at the end. In HURT LOCKER, did you really care who won? No, because there was nothing for us to win over there. Everyone lost in Iraq, and we all know that. So by not making any political statement in the movie, the writer and director leave us only with our own ambivalence about the war.

Conversely, AVATAR literally transports us to another world where we’re confronted with clear-cut moral choices that requires you to take a stand one way or the other. It made me care about 10-feet tall CGI creations that seemed more human to me than the “real” soldiers depicted in HURT LOCKER.

My Cameron connection: Marie Cantin optioned one of my early scripts with her significant other, Michael Miner (ROBOCOP cowriter). She produced THE WATERDANCE with Gale Anne Hurd, who was Cameron’s second wife — before he married Kathryn Bigelow, director of THE HURT LOCKER.

Parting shots: GLORY is still the most moving war movie I’ve ever seen. However, APOCALYPSE NOW remains one of my favorite films, just for the sheer audacity of some of the scenes and visuals.

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