Pretty war or Ugly War? Avatar vs The Hurt Locker

The likely frontrunners in the Oscar race for Best Picture are Avatar and The Hurt Locker, directed, respectively, by former husband and wife James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. This is an interesting match-up, not so much because they used to be married, or because they are also both nominated for Best Director, but because they both work within the action movie genre, and attempt, in quite different ways, to inject seriousness and ideas into that genre. Both Avatar and The Hurt Locker are, in their disparate ways, also war movies. Also interesting is that Avatar now stands as one of the top-grossing movies of all time, while The Hurt Locker barely registered at the box office. (If you're keeping score, that's over two billion dollars worldwide for Avatar, and a little under $18 million for The Hurt Locker.) In a popularity contest, Avatar wins, hands down. Audiences are more eager to watch pretty blue people on a distant planet fighting an imaginary future war, rather than watch a gritty, nerve-jangling movie about non-blue people fighting an actual war on this planet. Fair enough.

As in the classic David and Goliath matchup, scrappy David is the winner here. I make no predictions about how the Academy will vote -- one never knows -- but I'll be watching with interest. 

Avatar is good. It's quite good, but I don't think it's a *great* movie. I don't even think it's Cameron's best movie. The year is 2154, and Earthlings have invaded a distant planet called Pandora, a world that has the misfortune of being a rich source of unobtainium, a valuable mineral. Even more unlucky are the Na'vi, a race of tall, blue-skinned people who live in harmony with nature, and object to the strip mining of their world. The Na'vi have bows and arrows; the humans have heavily armed mercenaries with machine guns, hovering gunships, and mechas.

They've also got in mind to use a little deception. They've created avatars, hybrid creatures grown from human and Na'vi DNA, who look enough like the Na'vi to almost pass for the real thing (although the avatars have five fingers to the Na'vi's four -- the film is brimming with such small details). A human controls his or her Na'vi avatar from a remote, wired pod, walking among the natives in a tall, blue body. 

Cameron developed a new performance capture technique to create the Na'vi. Performance capture (or motion capture) uses live actors wearing sensors that track their movements, which are then used to digitally render them as animated figures. Efforts to use the technology thus far have generally failed, but Avatar gets it right: the faces of the Na'vi are expressive, dynamic, and alive. The overall movements of the Na'vi bodies are pretty close to perfect (the avatars are clunkier, as might be expected), and also a great leap forward. And Pandora, the beautiful jungle world, is  gorgeous: filled with bioluminescent plants and creatures, flying dragon-like beasts, little things that look like flying jellyfish, and a few carnivorous nasties lurking about among the giant ferns and flowers -- it's a glowing, shimmery, unspoiled paradise. A paradise that will be lost and despoiled if the greedy humans have their way.

Cameron wrote and directed Avatar, and it is peopled by the usual types that populate his films: heartless, mercenary military and corporate guys, a couple of nerds, and a tough woman or three. The Na'vi are pretty clearly meant to call to mind the aboriginal peoples of Earth, who haven't done so well by colonialists. In some ways, Avatar is a straightforward (if otherworldly) cowboys vs. Indians western, only the good guys are the Indians this time. It is also entirely possible (and no doubt intentional) that the allegorical story can support an interpretation grounded in contemporary conflicts and politics. There's also a running anti-corporate theme in Cameron's canon (also found in The Abyss and Aliens), and a seriously pro-green, anti-war tendency, which doesn't stop him from staging epic battles and blowing lots of things up. Avatar isn't just a long setup for a blow 'em up payoff in the third act: you're meant to care about what happens to Pandora and the Na'vi. Avatar invests in its characters, the good and the bad, creating an engrossing story and a world worth caring about.

But back to reality. The Hurt Locker is set in 2004, in Baghdad. Delta Company is an Army unit whose job is to find and defuse -- or detonate if necessary -- the deadly improvised explosive devices that seem to be everywhere in Iraq. The bombs range from simple pipe bombs to complicated car bombs to elaborate, byzantine networks of interconnected wires and cylinders that test the nerves, the fine motor skills, and the mental agility of Staff Sgt Will James (Jeremy Renner).

James joins Delta Company after their leader is killed. He's an unknown element to young, vulnerable Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and straightlaced Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), both of whom are hoping to leave Iraq alive. It's hard to tell if James cares about that. He seems to love bombs though, and keeps a box of parts -- a kind of tactile scrapbook -- containing pieces of all the bombs that nearly killed him.

The movie moves through a series of incidents -- ghastly discoveries, agonizing, physically punishing firefights, and nail-biting, live-wire confrontations with unfeeling, uncaring tangles of wires and explosives. The movie has a documentary-like immediacy and unpolished roughness, and in each of these set pieces, more is revealed about the characters, and especially James. The movies peels back the layers of his personality -- he's reckless and careful, an improviser and a technician, he's smart and knowledgeable, but equally dependent on good instincts, he's callous and brutal, but also tender. He likes bombs -- he's a bomb defusing genius, a rare and specialized martial artist. Renner's performance is just as reckless and precise, full of bravado and contradictions.

The Hurt Locker is not a traditional war movie in any sense. It doesn't really take a position on the war, pro or con. Neither does it glorify war, or explosions, or death, nor use the brutal spectacle of war to generate mindless suspense or thrills. But through meticulous, hyper-realism, the movie drills down into the core of the war's psychological and moral complexity with its fascinating, riveting, and almost unbearably suspenseful portrait of three soldiers. Those soldiers are stressed out beyond comprehension, their daily existence filled with strategic and tactical maneuvers, with brute survival, and with violently releasing the pressure that builds up through each day of their tour of duty.

The Hurt Locker isn't a fantasy of war, served up as a vehicle for socio-political themes. That's not to minimize the themes in Avatar, which are interesting, and relevant. It's just to say that while the action and the ideas go down easy in a movie like Avatar, where the characters are blue and white and everything is crystal clear, The Hurt Locker doesn't go down easy at all. It's hard to watch, psychologically brutal, and it leaves you, more than anything else, feeling unsettled. Unsettled by a war that's hard to comprehend, and people who are complicated and defy easy categorization. And that, I suspect, is why one of these movies made two billion dollars and the other made a tiny fraction of that. It's harder to understand why audiences are willing to watch an elaborate hoax of a psychological thriller like Shutter Island, but not a genuinely thrilling, genuinely scary movie like The Hurt Locker.