Why Avatar shouldn't win (but probably will anyway).

I've started hearing rumblings that, despite the Academy's controversial move from 5 nominees to 10 , the Oscar for Best Picture has been sewn up. When the Oscars are presented - more than two months from now - it is apparently all but assured that Avatar will walk away with the award.

A month ago, before I saw the film, I would have found the idea hysterical. Two weeks ago, after I'd seen the film and had time to digest it, I would've thought it highly improbable; Oscars aren't given to movies like Avatar, they go to gritty films with handheld cameras and movie stars wearing minimal makeup. A week ago, I'd have argued - forcibly - that it was extremely unlikely, saying there are more deserving and more prestigious films in the running, and Avatar will be swept aside, forced to be content with a possible Best Director win for James Cameron.

Today, I'm forced to concede that there's no stopping momentum. It's not just that Avatar's box office has reached obscene levels, it's done so at an unparalleled rate in movie history. The film was released on December 18th, and this Monday - 18 days after its release - Avatar became the third highest grossing movie in world history, with over a billion dollars. In terms of box office, that's just an impossible rate of revenue.

Let me put that in perspective for you. As a teenager, I became a giant Star Wars fan.

(I'll pause to let you to all gasp in shock)

Thank you. Now, every Star Wars fan who came of age in the 90's knows this one fact: that while Titanic is the highest-grossing film of all-time, if you adjust for inflation, Star Wars moves ahead of it. This piece of information rights the world of Star Wars fanboys.

Unfortunately, it's only half the story - Star Wars isn't the only film that moves up, and even though it does move ahead of Titanic, Gone With The Wind moves ahead of it. So there's no getting around the fact that  a love story set in the background of a historical epic where lots of people needlessly perish is the top movie of all time no matter how you slice it.

(Side note: the adjusted box office is a fascinating list to peruse. Titanic drops all the way to sixth, behind The Sound of Music, E.T., and The 10 Commandments, and the #2 movie on the list, The Dark Knight, drops all the to 27th, behind, among other films, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, Snow White, The Sting, The Graduate, Fantasia, Mary Poppins, Grease, and Thunderball. It's also behind Star Wars: Episode I, a movie that - despite being released in 1999 - has an adjusted box office of $623 million, versus an original box office of $431 million. I found that mind-blowing.)

Soon, all of that isn't going to matter, because in 18 days, Avatar blew all of that out of the water. The #2 movie on the international box office list, Return of the King, opened in December and closed in May. Titanic opened in December and closed in September. These movies had legs and that's how they made their money. And in 18 days, Avatar was only one spot behind.

That's why it's a lock that Avatar is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. No voter wants to seem out of tune with the rest of the world, they despise being labeled elitist (they don't mind actually being elitist, of course, but the accusation bothers them regardless). Avatar is a cultural force, and you don't go against cultural voices, not even for unsettling war movies or George Clooney's gravelly introspection. Not even if you think that it shouldn't win the award.

And you know what? It shouldn't win. It shouldn't even really be in discussion.  It's a great movie, and deserves all the accolades it's receiving for cinematography, for imagination, for being a groundbreaking piece of cinema. You could even argue that those are the same reasons we value Citizen Kane and name it the finest movie in American history. But Kane wasn't just the next step in film history from a technical perspective, it was groundbreaking in terms of story structure and narrative. No one had ever made a movie that told a story quite like that before, and the cinematography, the tecnical breakthrough, they all enhanced that. And sure, a dragon-taming sequence would probably have livened up the film, but there's no reason to point fingers at this stage of the game. It was a film perfectly conceived and precisely executed, a textbook lesson in smart, incisive filmmaking.

You can't say that about Avatar. For all its innovation, the film employs the most straightforward, unoriginal script ever to be a serious Oscar contender. It's been called out for being nearly identical in story to a number of environmentally-conscious films, including Dances With Wolves (which won a Best Picture Oscar) and Fern Gully (which did not). Just for fun, you can check out this piece some wag wrote comparing the Avatar script to Disney's Pocahantas, which turned out to be more damning than when Spike Ferensten made "The Curious Case of Forrest Gump."

I saw the film as it was meant to be seen - in an IMAX theater, in 3-D, with a crowd of people - and someone asked me later that night what I thought of the movie. I replied that I had, that in fact I'd loved it, but with reservations. Avatar is a film about scope, it's a film to be experienced in the darkness of a giant theater, it's a movie that imposes on you its sheer magnitude. But if I'd never seen it or heard about it, and ten years from now I was to stumble on it on cable late at night, without any previous knowledge of the film or the technology it took to bring it to the big screen, how soon would it take me to change the channel? Ten seconds? Fifteen? Would it even be that long?

(side note: when I turned the question around on the guy who asked me what I thought, he told me he'd loved it and thought it was fantastic. "And you know why?" he asked. "It's because of the great character development." I loved that answer - not because it was right, but because it simply couldn't have been any more wrong)

It's a funny comparison because in 1977, there was a movie called Star Wars (hey! We're back here again!) that dominated the movie landscape and broke all the box office records. But when the Oscars rolled around, it didn't win Best Picture - that award was won by Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a tiny romantic comedy few people had seen in theaters. Fortunately for Annie Hall, we were right on the cusp of widespread consumer of acceptance of cable, so many voters had a channel called the the "Z" Channel, which had gotten the rights to broadcast the movie and simply ran it into the ground. And that one channel swung an Oscar race.

Prior to Avatar's release, I read an interview with Cameron where he mentioned this very battle. "I remember being outraged when Star Wars lost to Annie Hall," he says. "I thought, 'Well, that's ridiculous. Star Wars changed the face of filmmaking, and Annie Hall's a nice little film.' I like Annie Hall, but I thought that was outrageous."

It's quotes like this that make me understand and like Cameron more, because to him the Oscars aren't about acting and storytelling and emotional impact, to him the awards go to the films that are game changers. And Avatar is certainly that. But movies like Avatar are what we mean when we call something a "popcorn" movie. It's not an insult, there are some movies worth plunking down in the theater with a lukewarm, greasy bucket of the stuff, there are some movies you don't have to see on a date or to learn about issues or to be deeply emotionally moved by, some movies are just fun.

And that's really what the cinema's about, right? We go to enjoy ourselves.

But that's not what the Oscars are, at least to me. The Oscars honor the best movies, the movies that change minds (or at least soften up the ground a little bit), that give us stories that last for generations, not movies with stories we've seen a million times before and know what's coming long before it comes. Not movies with special effects that will lose their glamour as computers improve, until the site of them makes us giggle fondly and say "remember this?"

Not movies that pale in comparison to films like The Hurt Locker, which so unsettled me that I called my Marine brother that night just to  talk to him about it, and discovered that I simply wasn't emotionally capable of discussing it with him. I didn't know how to put words together about it, I just knew that I didn't want him to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere he'd have to live like that.

Not when we have a chance to honor substance over style.

Not if the voters have any guts.

Not this year. I hope.