Friday, March 5, 2010

Why "Titanic" deserved the Best Picture Oscar and "Avatar", emphatically, Does NOT

With the Oscars this weekend, I felt I had to address a very large elephant in the room, and that elephant's name is Avatar. Some people see significant parallels between Avatar and director James Cameron's last movie-making monstrosity, Titanic, and use those parallels as justification for their belief that Avatar is the best and most obvious choice to win the Academy's highest honor on Sunday. To wit, they are both massive, record-breaking blockbuster films with relatively (or, in the case of Avatar, not-so-relatively) weak scripts that nevertheless are so awe-inspiring and mind-blowing visually that you can't help but be amazed. I am here to discredit this belief, once and for all, for while I was very happy with the Titanic win and find it as deserving now and I found it then, Avatar simply doesn't measure up. Not against Titanic, and not against this year's other competitors.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit some things:

1. I saw Titanic 6 and a half times in the theater. Probably 3 or 4 of these instances occurred before the Oscars. One was a full 8.5 years later, during a summer movie series downtown. The half viewing happened when I walked out of Lost in Space and so desperately needed a palate cleanser I hopped in to the theater next door, then halfway through Titanic. Clearly, I love this movie. Love it as much as I positively loathed Avatar. This fact is irrelevant. Everyone has tastes and preferences and I can be just as objective, if not more so, than anyone else.

2. I am in love with Leonardo DiCaprio and have been since roughly forever. Something about him on Growing Pains all those years ago stuck with me. I don't know what it was or why, but I noticed him, I remembered him, and I grew to love him. And he grew to deserve my love because not only is he a great actor (seriously, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries still haunt me with how brilliant he is), but that latest Esquire cover is HOTT. This fact is also irrelevant, because I will freely and readily admit this is my least favorite of his performances, one that I have found stiff and awkward (partly due to the script, which I will address momentarily) with only brief shades of charm and emotional heft.

That out of the way, let's get down to business.

The most prominent reason Avatar is sub-par, as a film, is its lack of story. There is literally nothing new or inventive or even interesting about this "conqueror comes to know the people he's conquering and leads them in overthrowing the other conquerors" tale. It's been done, and done, and done. And not only is it a tired and overused premise, it's an outdated and offensive concept. These poor tree huggers are going to wail and moan and sway beseechingly when their homes are destroyed, only bothering to stand up and defend themselves when this wiser, stronger outsider completely masters their culture inside of three months and incites them to fight back. With his help, they can prevail. How is this any more enlightened or empowering than literally calling them "savages" like Cliche' McCliche'erson, the assembly-line Corporate Weasel?

Even its attempts at story are inconsistent and confusing. Why would Neytiri spare Jake's life when given a sign that he's special by the sacred dandelion seed, only to have an adolescent mini tantrum when she's asked to train him? Why, if she's betrothed to the future chief dude, is there no hesitation on her part, nor any fallout whatsoever, from her mating (ew) with Jake? How are we supposed to care about this love story when it received all the time and nuance developing it as did Simba's advancement into adulthood (while traipsing across a log, singing "Hakuna Matata") in The Lion King?

And there are other, nitpicky things: Why is the science-y guy suddenly ragging on Jake about his lack of study and knowledge when he'd previously been hospitable and gracious towards him? Why was their school shut down? Why was Grace banished? How long have they been there that seemingly ever Na'vi alive knows English? Why the throwaway line about Jake going blind if he plays with his connector-hair? What does that mean? Is it significant? What the hell is this floating rock for anyway? What makes it so valuable? Is it seriously called "unobtanium", of all things, REALLY?? What takes that villainous army Colonel so long to die anyway? Is he just that badass??

These things are so overwrought and ridiculous, if it weren't for the effects this movie would be laughed out of theaters, I kid you not. But a movie is more than special effects. It doesn't have to be deep or complex. It doesn't have to involve tragedy or disease to be important, but it does have to be about something. A film that exists solely as a showcase for its amazing advancements in visual effects is nothing but an advertisement for new technologies. It's a two-and-a-half hour video billboard. It's a Powerpoint presentation.

Titanic is different; it has a heart. Given, Cameron was probably aided, story-wise, by the fact that the story of the Titanic is true, allowing him to cull from actual events and accounts to lend some authenticity to his otherwise admittedly thin writing abilities. But even though the ending of Titanic was known going in -- it is a matter of historical record, after all -- Cameron was able to make the film about the journey, the maiden (and final) voyage of a legendary ship. He even starts with the end, so to speak, in that the film begins in the present, at the actual wreckage, and our first introduction to Rose tells us that, at some point, she took Jack's name. So the film is more of a memory, a nostalgic look at a fascinating and terrifying event, that embraces and enthralls its audience with its story as much as its heart-dropping effects. Yes, as in Avatar, many of Titanic's characters are stereotypes -- Rose's mother, Cal, the wince-inducing Fabrizio -- but unlike Avatar, Titanic has an emotional center in its main character. Rose, the Kate Winslet memory and the Gloria Stuart present, is strong and scared. She's brave and hesitant. She's thoughtful and spontaneous. Introspective and flighty. She's disdainful of her position and entrenched in it. And ultimately, these are all the things that a person is, with different shades of personality that run the gamut of emotions. No one is just one thing -- like Avatar's laughably brash Grace, feisty Neytiri, soldier-boy Jake, or countless others. Winslet and Stuart gave us someone to care about in Titanic, which is why both received acting nominations, whereas I couldn't care less about anyone in Avatar because the whole thing was utterly disconnected from real human emotion. Clearly, given Avatar's grand total of zero acting noms, many Academy voters feel similarly. And how can you feel connected, really, to a character that is essentially a cartoon? A transformative, technological marvel of a cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless. Not a Pixar cartoon, mind you, because those beings have souls, but a lifeless, soulless, action figure. A video game.

Dalton Ross said today on The Early Show that, while he thought The Hurt Locker would win Best Picture and Best Director, he felt Avatar and Cameron should win those categories. His argument, in a nutshell, is that Avatar was amazing to look at, and that Cameron did things nobody else has ever done before. My response, in a nutshell, is that's why the Academy has Scientific Achievement Awards. Best Picture and, by extension, Best Director, are about something more.

Look at the nominees that shared space with Titanic in 1997: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential. This is a varied and interesting group of films right here, each one of them outstanding because of its emotion. L.A. Confidential was gorgeous, but also heartbreaking. The Full Monty was hilariously fun, but also touching. Good Will Hunting was witty, but also insightful. As Good As It Gets was absurd, but also heartfelt. Titanic was stunning, but also devastating. Each one of these films made a really strong case for being in the running that year, and any of them would've been justified in taking home the statue. The fact that Titanic did may have been influenced by its box-office and its effects, but it wasn't exclusive of its story and characters. This year's nominees, an overwhelming and excessive list of ten, share a lot of those same characteristics. Up, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and The Hurt Locker all fall into line with the same kinds of qualities as the 1997 list. They are interesting, original, stunning, tense, gut-wrenching, tragic, and uplifting. Any one of them could walk away with the prize and get no argument from me, though my personal favorite was Inglourious Basterds, a captivating and thoroughly entertaining film. But even most of the people I know or have talked to who liked Avatar agree it shouldn't win Best Picture. It's a fluff piece -- the "World's Largest Cheeseburger" of the movie world. A technical achievement, sure, but in no way the best thing you've consumed all year.

It doesn't deserve to win.


  1. This was excellent, as always. But I can't even begin to decipher this: "Why the throwaway line about Jake going blind if he plays with his connector-hair?"

  2. Exactly. Avatar is just that nonsensical.

    I actually think it was some sort of clunky masturbation joke (because Grace can't help being crass and inappropriate in all situations, apparently) that widely missed the mark, given its delivery and the fact that, at that point in the movie, nobody knows what those fiber optic cables at the end of their braids ARE yet, much less that they use them to plug into things, including each other. (Ew.)