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John Scalzi – So Why Did The Hurt Locker Beat Out Avatar for Best Picture?

<img src="" alt="" title="John Scalzi – So Why Did The Hurt Locker Beat Out Avatar for Best Picture?” width=”560″/>


Well, this wasn’t an entirely unexpected e-mail. From a reader: “You said last week that if Avatar won Best Picture at the Academy Awards that you’d tell us what that means. It didn’t win. So what does THAT mean?”

In one very practical sense, it means that the overall better movie — or at least the more well-rounded of in terms of Oscar nominations — won. Avatar and Hurt Locker had the same number of Oscar noms, but what Hurt Locker had that Avatar didn’t were acting and screenplay nominations to complement their technical ones. I noted early on that this fact would be a disadvantage to Avatar, and it certainly seems to have played out that way; I think either consciously or subconsciously Academy voters saw the wider breadth of nomination categories for Hurt Locker and — to the extent that the race came down to being a choice between Hurt Locker and Avatar — went for the movie with the wider range. But there were other factors at play here as well…

It takes nothing away from Kathryn Bigelow’s accomplishments as a director (which, until Sunday night, had been underrated for years) and the ample qualities of Hurt Locker to note that for some, if not many, Academy members, the opportunity to give top awards to a female-helmed flick was an important one. To put it as bluntly as possible, if the Academy wouldn’t do it this year, when there was no question both film and director were deserving, when would they?

Still, should scifi fans feel as if they’ve been robbed? Well, this fan feels perfectly fine with it. First of all, The Hurt Locker is eminently worthy of the Best Picture award, which matters. It’s one thing for Avatar (or, say, District 9) to lose to one of the most acclaimed movies of the last decade. It would have been another thing if it had lost to, say, The Blind Side, which though it’s a nice story, isn’t (in my opinion) the overall accomplishment that Avatar (or District 9) turned out to be.

Second, science fiction fans should be honest with themselves and admit that Avatar was really only middlin’ on when it came to its story, which while effective was not exactly what you’d call wildly original. I think this was wholly intentional on the part of James Cameron — having invested so much money and effort pushing the technology of filmmaking, I think he played it safe on the script to make sure he got butts in seats. The commercial wisdom of this choice is not much in doubt (please see the $2.5 billion worldwide gross to date), but when it came to awards time, it left the film in a vulnerable spot.

Third, James Cameron spent the last few weeks more or less proclaiming that he thought it was Bigelow’s year, and that if Avatar won on its technical merits that that would be fine with him, because hey, he’s got his Oscars already! Now, we can debate whether he was doing that because he already sensed the movie was going to come up short on the Best Picture front, or because he was rallying behind Bigelow, whom he respects as a filmmaker and colleague, and to whom he used to be married. But either way, if “The King of the World” is going around publicly saying, “Hey, I’m good, give this to someone else,” I’m not sure anyone should be too put out when things end up going that way.

I think another reason Cameron was comfortable with the Oscar slipping past Avatar is because he remembers something that other people sometimes forget, which is that Oscar isn’t the final arbiter of a movie’s significance, especially when it comes to science fiction. Star Wars lost the Best Picture Oscar to Annie Hall. E.T. was defeated by Gandhi . 2001 wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture in its year, but if you’d like to suggest that the winner that year (Oliver!) has had more of an impact on our culture, you’ll get, at best, polite blank stares.

The Hurt Locker is undoubtedly deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. And sure, it would have been great for science fiction to get the mainstream affirmation that comes from Best Picture status. But in the long run, for Avatar, and for Cameron, the award would have simply been a bonus. I suspect he knows, a quarter century from now, which movie is likely to have made a larger impact on the culture, and on filmmaking in general. It’s not the one that just won Best Picture.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also a creative consultant for the television series Stargate: Universe. His column appears every Thursday.

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