Team Hurt Locker or Team Avatar?

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So Team Hurt Locker or Team Avatar?

Me, I'm with the blue team. And that's not just out of misguided backlash-against-the-backlash loyalty to what is now the biggest movie of all time and harbinger of the 3D era. A film which, as my learned colleague Peter Calder expounded in this column a few weeks back, has its faults.

It's for us reviewers to point out a movie's flaws and then decide whether we forgive them and go with it - or revel in the faults. Each to his own.

On Monday (New Zealand time) comes the big last test of Avatar's impact on pop culture. Will it win the Best Picture award as its director James Cameron did with his previous box office-monstering feature Titantic? Or will the award go elsewhere, likely to The Hurt Locker, a movie directed by Cameron's former wife Kathryn Bigelow on a minuscule budget. And a film which, like so many Iraqi war movies before it, has gone out into the world largely unloved and unseen by audiences.

If it wins best picture it will be the smallest-grossing movie ever to do so, which is ironic in a year the Academy has been trying to reach a wider audience with its televised ceremony.

Both Avatar and The Hurt Locker have nine nominations. In the best picture category both films are up against eight others in this year's expanded-to-10 category.

That also means a new voting system. Instead of first past the post, it's an instant run-off voting. Academy members have ranked their 10 choices in order of preference. If no movie is the clear first choice of a majority of voters, the film with the least first-choices is eliminated and the second choices are then distributed. And so on until a winner has more than half of the votes.

This isn't new. The Academy Awards had 10 and sometimes 12 best picture nominees until 1943. Even eliminating the five best picture nominations which aren't also up for best director, it makes the best picture race a guessing game right until the envelope is unsealed.

But a thought occurs: The Hurt Locker might be the kid with the slingshot in this David and Goliath struggle, but it's really not up to being a best picture giant-killer.

I've seen the film, which isn't released here until next month. Its story of a bomb disposal team is tense, thrilling, and delivers quite a study on what American troops faced - and still face - in Iraq, and why one in particular enjoys his dangerous work more than life at home.

But despite its real-world setting, it comes with some highly unlikely story swerves while maintaining a curious political neutrality. It also has bigger displays of macho bravado than attacking a gunship of earthmen while riding your giant flying lizard somewhere on the other side of the galaxy.

As a ticking time-bomb movie, it's a ripper. But funnily enough, Avatar, in its own clumsy way says more than The Hurt Locker about the problems of upsetting the locals when invading foreign territory. It might not say it with the greatest of dialogue but it sure dazzles you in the attempt.

Bigelow has been held up as breaking the glass ceiling for women directors with her nominations. But most of her past films (the equally formulaic likes of Blue Steel, Point Break, K-19: The Widowmaker) have been exercises in excess testosterone, and The Hurt Locker isn't a giant leap beyond that.

If Bigelow become the first woman to win best director, it's because she's out-guyed the other guys - including her ex. But Avatar should - will - win Cameron those Oscars, come Monday. Go the blues.

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