January means a lot of things to me -- that New Year's resolution to make this the year that I learn to eat better and lose some weight, the stress of speech season, getting ready to start directing a musical, first semester finals, and Oscar season. January is the final stretch before nominations are announced, and it's crunch time for Mel as I attempt to figure out which movies will garner nominations and which one is the frontrunner. It's been more than 20 years since a movie won Best Picture without me having seen it first. It can be a stressful experience -- our local multiplex doesn't often attract a lot of art films and even movies that have opened in more theatres don't often find their way here right away. (Still waiting on Up in the Air, for example.) This season has been a tiny bit more stressful as the season has begun not because I'm worried about whether the frontrunner will show up in town but because one of the big frontrunners is here -- and I didn't want to see it.
I'm talking about Avatar. I've been heard cursing around the house a lot lately over this film. I had zero desire to see it, but it became increasingly obvious as the weeks rolled on that I was going to have to. When Dave Karger called it the Oscar frontrunner recently on ew.com, I knew I was screwed. So this weekend, I swallowed my bile and headed out in sub-zero weather to see Avatar.
The movie had a lot going against it as I headed into the theatre. Next to westerns, science fiction is the film genre I dislike the most. With limited exceptions, I just don't get into fantasy films in general, sci-fi in particular. They often require tremendous suspension of disbelief that I just can't muster. Add to that the fact that this particular film is directed by James Cameron whom I've never forgiven for the bloated monstrosity that was Titanic or for his insensitive, conceited behavior when he won Best Picture that year. Throw in a running time that pushes three hours, and it was like a committee had gotten together to create the ultimate anti-Mel film, the surefire way to break my Oscar streak.
What this committee failed to anticipate was my extreme stubbornness. If I would sit through Gladiator or the Lord of the Rings movies, I'd sit through this. I gritted my teeth, bought my ticket, and sat there, stewing at the injustice of it all as I waited for the film to begin.
And then it did.
And I was sucked in.
I won't try to explain the plot here because quite frankly, it sounds ridiculous when you try. And I won't lie -- the critics who've called it Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves are pretty spot on. Let's be honest: James Cameron is not a gifted writer nor do I think he is a good director where getting the most out of his actor's is concerned. Neither is George Lucas, but what they both have in common is that they do know how to tell a good story and how to give you a film that is arresting to look at. Lucas must have been sick after having seen what Cameron accomplishes here -- the creation of a world that is so real and yet so unreal that it is almost devastating to behold. There is a seamless quality as the film goes back and forth between the "real world" and the world of Pandora, Cameron's creation.
As ridiculous as the plot sounds on paper (and it does), the truth is that it was engaging even if it was familiar. More than once, I found myself weeping from the beauty or the pain onscreen. Perhaps what got me most was the same thing that has some people grumbling -- the pretty overt environmental allegory that Cameron has created. At its core, the film is about the desecration of the environment. At one point during the film, a character says of the human invaders, "They killed their mother," meaning that we destroyed our environment so we're coming after theirs. As images of enormous bulldozers rolled through the jungles of Pandora, I wept. There is a powerful lesson at play here -- to protect our earth and to understand and appreciate the way that we are all interconnected as people and interconnected with the world around us. I expected to go into the movie and experience pretty but not much else. I didn't expect to think and be quite so moved.
Should the film win Best Picture? I don't know. I still have a couple contenders to take in before I make a judgement, but I will say it deserves the nomination. If you're on the fence about the film like I was, I recommend it. It's so much more than I expected, and you may be as surprised as I was.