Avatar wins, sci-fi loses

Why award glory for Cameron’s 3D epic isn’t just undeserved, it’s unwanted

AvatarThe review scores might have fluctuated but there is something of a common consensus regarding James Cameron’s Avatar, winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and member of the $1 billion club. Irrespective of ratings, critics more or less conceded that there were six simple truths about the film: firstly, that the special effects were incredible; secondly, that 3D was exciting; thirdly, that the action scenes were ambitious; fourthly, that the film is, for the most part, poorly acted; fifthly, that the story is derivate, safe and predictable; and finally, that the dialogue is some of the worst to grace a script in a number of years. How much the film was enjoyed depended entirely on how much emphasis anyone placed on each of these indisputable qualities and flaws.

The problem is that the qualities are much less likely to stand the test of time than the flaws. The special effects will be bested, that’s inevitable, while the 3D feat will be repeated until we can barely remember the strange old days of 2D cinema. That’s not to say that the better aspects of the film will soon be worthless, just that in five years time, with its sheen outshone, Avatar will simply be a film with poor dialogue, weak plot and bad performances.

Which makes its Golden Globe success and probable Oscar glory all the more worrying. Not just because there have been more deserving films released in the last 12 months, a portion of which were genre-related, but because the gold that will smother Avatar, as it did Titanic, will only make its shortcomings easier to remember. No one remembers (with the notable exception of Shaun) being wowed by Titanic’s effects; they just remember the bad dialogue, feeble story and stupid song. As sure as there will be an Avatar 2, when the hype fades those currently espousing Avatar’s virtues will soon turn on it, their crows of denial drowning out the cockerel’s own. The awards aren’t rewarding the craftsmanship of the film so much as they are highlighting its incredible commercial success, and in the long term this will only tarnish a genre that already struggles to be taken seriously.

It’s almost as if the poor plot and heavy-handed themes are being overlooked by the various academies and yaysayers because quality in these areas isn’t ever expected from a sci-fi movie. To put it another way, if a World War II drama had the level of dialogue and plodding script that Avatar does it would likely be much less favourably received. But because Avatar is a sci-fi film, who cares that it had no aspirations to be anything other than good to look at? Who cares that it has, at its heart, a nondescript character with neither depth nor personality? Who cares that it’s mechanically designed to be enjoyed by everyone and consequently relevant to no one? Who cares that every scene contained within it was more predictable than the last? The message is loud and clear: it’s sci-fi – it’s not supposed to be good.

We disagree.