The Avatar Oscar Paradox: A Breakthrough, But Not Worthy of the Trophy

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I’ve been thinking about writing this note for a long time now. For more than a month, actually. Ever since I wrote up our Freeze Frame feature, about the deep, intoxicating horizons of Avatar.

Back in early February, in response to my commentary about the film’s 3D achievements, commenter grape_crush posted the following: “What’s interesting to me is that – outside of the establishment of 3D as a serious tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox – the world of Pandora is more interesting than the Avatar storyline. The plot is more meta-MacGuffin, necessary to drive the exploration of this fictional world Cameron created….”

I have been thinking about that comment a lot, ever since. The next day, the Oscar nominations came out, and I found myself writing about both Avatar and District 9 in the best picture category, and grape_crush’s sentiments came floating back, to the top of my mind. Was Avatar truly better than District 9?

Now I have written extensively about how I firmly believe – and hope – that Avatar is the future of cinema. Imagine a world of movies that strive to be more immersive experiences, drawing us in to look at universes we’ve never seen before, to connect with characters in ways that we’ve never connected before, and to walk away more fulfilled and fascinated than after watching something like, oh, Transformers 2. (Check out Techland’s complete Avatar coverage)

I know there’s been some backlash against Avatar, and in no way do I fall into that camp. I’ve seen it three times, and been utterly entranced all three times. The cargo bay of the spaceship. The nighttime sprint through Pandora’s jungles. The floating mountains. The hard-ass Colonel. That final shot, where the line between avatar and human – between real actor and CG character – is blurred beyond recognition. This is great stuff.

That said, I did notice on the third run around the bend some of the more obvious seams in the story. And it was enough, during that last viewing, to diminish some of the visual splendors. I thought again about grape_crush: Was this virtual world – as groundbreaking as it is – better than the story that inhabits it?

As much as I hate to consider such a prospect, isn’t the answer yes? Take away the 3D, and is Avatar still the same experience? Not really. (More at Techland: Percy Jackson and the all-time greatest sci-fi child heroes)

This spectacle is one of the most impressive ever imagined, attempted or completed. But the story doesn’t quite rise to the challenge. Almost all of my accolades have been about the look and texture of the thing, but I haven’t said too much about the emotional core.

And I think this is why, when the nominations were announced, something deep inside my heart cheered for Avatar, but there was a part of my sci-fi-loving mind that cheered even louder for District 9. Yes, Avatar deserves to win just about every technical award under the sun. We’ll see plenty of trophies going to the team that James Cameron assembled. But best picture? The best overall picture of 2009? Story and acting and effects? I’m not totally sure that Avatar could lay claim to that title. .

Are there not others out there who share my state of confusion? I firmly believe that Avatar will go down as one of the most important and influential motion pictures ever made. Yet I don’t believe it deserves to win best picture. This is the paradox I hope I am able to come to terms with as I watch the Oscars play out Sunday.

How about you?

More at Techland: Read our review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland