It's that time of year again where everyone is excited to start talking about the Oscar race. Top 10 lists have been compiled, critics' awards have been handed out, and prominent entertainment writers have begun to make fearless predictions about which films will prevail at the Kodak Theatre this coming March. This kind of talk is all just speculation done in good fun, or at least it used to be. But ever since the Internet became a place for movie buffs to dissect every aspect of the Oscar race, it's become entirely too easy to predict which movies will grab the gold. These days, when Oscar rumors begin to gain traction, they need to be taken seriously. And that's why -- just in case the Academy is listening -- everyone needs to stop all this crazy talk about Avatar being a Best Picture front-runner. Right. This. Second.
Now, before you accuse me of overlooking the visual splendor and technological breakthroughs of Avatar, or the genius of James Cameron, I want to make it clear that I don't think Avatar is a terrible movie -- just one that's too flawed to merit serious consideration for the film industry's biggest prize. The world that Cameron created is quite beautiful, the action sequences are breathtaking, and the 3-D effects are easily the best I've ever seen. I agree with Laremy that the film deserves a solid B. This film needs to be judged like an Olympic figure skating competition, where they take the average of the technical merit and artistry marks to create a final score.
But to be a true Best Picture contender, a film really needs a better combined score, and Avatar falls flat in too many areas. The performances of Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Lang all come across as one-note, and we know these actors are all capable of showing much more complexity on screen. The movie never slows down enough (which is remarkable considering it's length) to stop and show us who these people are. Instead they feel like pawns Cameron simply moves around to get from one action sequence to the next. The on-the-nose dialogue serves no deeper purpose than to help the audience figure out what side each character will take in the culminating war. And while I find no fault with the film's "let's appreciate nature" message, I do find it troubling how easily Jake Sully gave up on his own species. We're told in no uncertain terms that Earth and all of its inhabitants are doomed without the resources that can be found on Pandora, but Sully shows no mercy for his original home planet. You only have to look back two years to No Country for Old Men's Best Picture victory to know the Academy doesn't mind rewarding a bleak view of humanity every now and then; but that film provided a thorough examination of the dark side of human nature. Avatar only gives us a few scenes with a bully of a Marine and a slick corporate suit before it asks us to cheer for the demise of the entire human race. Should we really be so eager to reward a film that assumes we're all as bad as these stock villains?
I understand that a lot of people are willing to forgive Avatar the shortcomings of its story because of its technical innovations. These people think that Avatar deserves a Best Picture Oscar simply because it did something new. But new isn't always enough. I'd like for these Avatar supporters to think back to the last time animation went through such a substantial change. It was back in 1995 when Pixar made their feature film debut with the now-classic Toy Story. This film changed animation forever, but one of its most clever tricks was softening the blow by giving us a story about embracing change. Everyone in the audience who'd grown up thinking Disney's hand-drawn fairy tales were the height of animated art could relate to Woody, an old-fashioned cowboy who was worried he couldn't keep up with the new high-tech spaceman who'd just come crashing into his toy box. Traditional Woody and flashy Buzz Lightyear learned to work together by the film's end, and Pixar's message was clear: they intended to push the boundaries of filmmaking and give us things we'd never seen before, but they'd still give us stories and characters we could recognize our own lives and emotions in. And Pixar has continued this tradition with every film they've produced, including this year's Up -- a total package of heartfelt storytelling and visual splendor that succeeds in every manner that Avatar fails.
The ending to Avatar stands in stark contrast to the reconciliation of Woody and Buzz in Toy Story. Jake Sully opens his eyes in his new, full Na'vi body and it's clear that he's left his human existence behind forever. Rewarding Avatar with a Best Picture nomination would send a signal that the film industry is ready to leave the human experience behind, too. And that's not the kind of achievement that should earn anyone a gold statuette.