Everyone gets to be a movie critic in the days leading up to the award of the Oscars, betting their favorites to win, place or show. Down the home stretch, "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" battle it out to the finish line. What delicious irony that the "jockeys" were once married to each other.
James Cameron, director of "Avatar," and Kathryn Bigelow, director of "Hurt Locker," have untied the marital knot, but their talents remain locked tightly together.
Hollywood is far from perfect, as you may have heard, but moviemakers push the envelope of popular culture, telling us as much and more about ourselves, for better and for worse, than the political players in Washington. The politicians only get to craft -- or crash -- health care, and the mavens of Wall Street only exploit the economy. But every generation finds the popular culture it deserves, and "Avatar" and "Hurt Locker" are testimony to the obsessions of contemporary young Americans, who often play electronic war games without noticing that their country is fighting two real wars in real time.
If "Avatar" is perceived as a happening through a hallucinatory drug, "Hurt Locker" requires something to calm the collective hyperactivity felt by its audience. High tech meets adrenalin to strike an authentic high.
For all its spectacular three-dimensional beauty, "Avatar" suffers from a sloppy sentimental love story with a behind-the-curve message of America as the ultimate imperial power. Actors are clothed in digital distortions.
"Hurt Locker" brings gritty American soldiers to life in a realistic war in Iraq, with an appreciation for the heroism of a soldier whose main purpose is not to shoot to kill, but to dismantle roadside bombs -- the IEDs, improvised explosive devices. It's a new kind of combat, where our tough guys set out to protect and defend civilians who don't always feel any need to say thanks.
The strength of "Avatar" lies in its harnessing new electronic technology to create bursts of dazzling action. Director James Cameron creates splashes of surreal color in fantastical fights between man and beast. The power of "Hurt Locker," in striking contrast, resides in its earthy, drab, down-and-dirty realism, captured in the fine acting of men who transport us into their hearts, minds, fears and frustrations for an experience most Americans will never confront.