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Kneale: Putting 'Avatar' in 'The Hurt Locker'

“Avatar” is the greatest wonder of the film world, with a $2-billion-plus box office, a $400-million budget to make, market and distribute it, and digital effects that will spawn a new craze for 3D flicks.

Jeremy Renner in a scene from "The Hurt Locker".
Voltage Pictures
Jeremy Renner in a scene from "The Hurt Locker".

Yet my sincere hope is that, come Sunday night, “Avatar” loses, and loses badly, in its sure-bet bid for best film at the Academy Awards.

My choice: “The Hurt Locker.” That small, jarring film, about the honor, pain and heroics of a U.S. Army Corps bomb squad in Iraq, took in only $20 million or so worldwide compared with $2.55 billion for “Avatar.” That is one dollar in “Hurt Locker” ticket sales for every $127 dollars sucked in by the “Avatar” death star, if my math is right.

So why root for it? There’s the underdog angle. I am seduced by lost causes. And there’s the universal desire for post-divorce vindication: The director of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow, was the third wife of James Cameron, the egomaniacal director and creator of Avatar. They divorced in 1991, and he now is on wife #5.

Plus, we have the politics of it: Avatar is anti-corporate and anti-development, a politically correct greenie-screed that ignores a basic truth: Hey, progress happens. “Avatar,” in fact, even seems anti-people; the heroes are 10-foot-tall blueskins with prehensile tails.

Whereas, “The Hurt Locker” hails dignity and duty under stress. It paints an intimate, uncomfortably close profile of quiet heroes (and adrenaline addicts) in an unpopular war, without succumbing to preachy stances or simplistic fixes.

But I have two better reasons I want “The Hurt Locker” to put the hurt on “Avatar.” First, there’s the financial lesson in these straitened times: No film, ever, should cost a quarter of a billion dollars or more to make—I don’t care how well it pays off.

At $2.5 billion the studio behind “Avatar,” News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox, and partners could turn, say, $800 million in profits, or a gross margin of 30%. By contrast, “Paranormal Activity,” distributed by Viacom’s Paramount arm, raked in $183 million worldwide—and cost only $15,000 to make.

Which risk would you rather have taken?

And second, The small film is about atoms, while the box-office behemoth is about bits. That is, “The Hurt Locker” uses cameras and film to capture real human beings doing real things in real life. “Avatar” uses massive amounts of computer power to program pixilated images drawn on a screen — just a whole bunch of digital bits.

At some point “Avatar” and its progeny will be more akin to glorified Pixar-like animation rather than real filmmaking.

Remember Cecil B. DeMille and “the cast of thousands”? That was a favorite phrase in movie trailers many years ago. A desert battle scene in “Cleopatra” filmed literally thousands of extras in costume. Today their ranks would swell with the mere click of a computer mouse, and you wouldn’t need a single real actor out there on the sand, at all.

Even today the atoms of real life can be preferable. The opening battle scene in “Gladiator” eschews digital explosions in favor of the real thing. Handmade catapults hurl real balls of fire into real treetops and set the forest and the battlefield ablaze. Stuntmen made it happen, and cameras were there to catch it. (And the forest was set for clear-cutting anyway.)

These days computers could draw that same scene just fine, but, to me, some of the romance of filmmaking is lost. And all those special effects, and those funny glasses, can obscure the most important element of all: characters we care about.