I saw the low-budget The Hurt Locker long before the mega-million-dollar 3D IMAX film, and when I left the theater I couldn’t imagine any other film being my Best Picture pick. I was right. All the special effects of Avatar, all the clever inventions, did not convince me otherwise — and I am a (secret, unconscious?) sci-fi fan (going back to the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Star Wars).
The Hurt Locker, about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, was an edge-of-your-seat thriller, especially when you think about the fact that war is not fiction and there are thousands of people facing danger and death every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, a journalist who wrote the script after being embedded with a bomb unit in Iraq, captured the reality of the Iraq War, from the different psychological responses of the troops to the torture of thirst and the agonizing pace of time when the soldiers are ambushed in the desert to the horror of not knowing who the enemy is when anyone could be holding a bomb detonator. The character of Sgt. James, played masterfully by Jeremy Renner, is a fictionalized daredevil addicted to the adrenaline rush of facing his own mortality, but it has often been the experience of soldiers at war that there is no easy way to adjust to civilian life afterward. The movie opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges’ 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” (It reminded me of a great book, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, written in 1977 about the Vietnam War; it is fascinating and reads like fiction, which sadly it isn’t. Incidentally, Herr, also a war correspondent, co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.) I might add that it doesn’t matter if the film didn’t get all the details right, according to the military; it’s not a documentary and it still conveys truths of war. And it doesn’t matter that Bigelow is a woman either.
A great movie has many things, and Avatar just lacked some of the most important ones: like a great story and dialogue. You can’t cover that up with 3D animated dandelion fluff floating off the screen. You’d think if director James Cameron was going to spend more than a decade working on this magnum opus, he would have invested as much in the script as he did in the technology. I was ready to be dazzled by the imagery though. Yes, there were beautiful scenes like Pandora’s amazing floating mountains, creative and fascinating flora and fauna, and even some very cool futuristic technology evidenced in the space ships and the equipment on board. But the creative stuff was not above and beyond other films from decades ago, like say, Star Wars, or even Alien (both of which really had much more interesting creatures and developed characters). And there were plenty of questions that could have been more creatively answered: Why is the military still using helicopters and machine guns? Why did the military have to destroy the Na’vi “Hometree” to dig in the ground for (the stupidly named) unobtanium? Why are people still talking about problems with access to health care and references to the Iraq War in the year 2154? Wouldn’t we have moved on to other, similarly vexing issues sometime by, oh, I don’t know, 2020? Such elements emphasized the weaknesses of the story, which should have been infused with at least as much creativity as the animation.
I won’t even go into my personal tolerance level for 3D IMAX. Let’s just say that it doesn’t take a big budget to make the best film. In fact, exactly the opposite may be true most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Avatar. But there was also some great cinematography in The Hurt Locker, like the slow-motion close-up of dirt and rocks flying in the air when a bomb detonates. It’s much more subtle, but that can be so much more artistic sometimes. And how can you be dazzled by the basically humanoid Na’vi and not that much more awestruck by learning that the Iraqis were using children’s dead bodies to house bombs. There was really some amazing work there that hit the heart and mind in a way unlike anything in Avatar.