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After a film strikes a chord with moviegoers like "Gravity" did last weekend, it's easy to try and find analogies for it among previous Best Picture nominees or winners. One comparison that continues to be made is to James Cameron's 2009 game changer, "Avatar." Before we judge the merits of that argument, let's jog your brain and revisit some movie history, shall we?
Unlike any film before it, "Avatar" transformed how filmmakers use 3D and how audiences view it as cinematic experience. It was more than a movie, it was a cultural touchstone that eventually earned $2.7 billion worldwide and $760.6 million in the US (and it's still the all-time champ in both categories). The film also earned nine Academy Award nominations, but lost Best Picture and Best Director to "The Hurt Locker," which, in an example of divine intervention, was directed by Cameron's ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow.
Other 3D marvels have followed including the animated "How to Train Your Dragon," Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and "Life of Pi," which earned Ang Lee his second Best Director trophy last February. Now "Gravity" has arrived and is once again demonstrating the artistic possibilities of using 3D technology in cinema. And with it comes an argument that "Gravity" cannot win Best Picture because, well, um, it's "Avatar!" Soothsayers will tell you both films are science-fiction, 3D epics that won't appeal to Academy members. A smaller film such as "12 Years a Slave" is really the one to watch. If it's a battle of "Gravity" vs. "12 Years a Slave," history has told us "The Hurt Locker" beat "Avatar," so, therefore, "12 Years" will take home Oscar gold. Well, that may eventually occur, but it's certainly not because "Gravity" is this year's "Avatar." And boy are there some stark reasons why.
There's science-fiction and there is sci-fi
Comparing "Gravity" to "Avatar" is like comparing a McIntosh apple to a golden delicious. Sure, they are both apples, but they both taste different. "Avatar" is genre sci-fi with spaceships traveling across the galaxy, aliens and a big massive battle in robotic suits at the end. "Gravity" is barely science-fiction and is much closer to something like "Gattaca," "Inception" or even Danny Boyle's "Sunshine." "Gravity" is based so much in reality (different orbits aside) that even that categorization is weak. No disrespect to Cameron, but it's hard to get AMPAS members to vote for a movie with such a blockbuster final act as "Avatar" had. No showdown between blue aliens and machine gun-toting soldiers in "Gravity."
Critical love comes in different shapes and sizes
"Avatar" was critically acclaimed, but not to the extent that "Gravity" has been. Cameron's epic earned an 83 out of 100 score on Metacritic and an 83% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. "Gravity" is currently at 96 out of 100 on Metacritic and 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. That's a substantial difference. "Avatar" won best film prizes from the Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Associations, as well as the New York Film Critics Online (yep, that's it). "Gravity" has to be a frontrunner to win the much more prestigious LA Film Critics or New York Film Critics' Circle best film honors. "Avatar" didn't have a chance with those groups.
James Cameron had already conquered the Oscars
Lest we forget, James Cameron had already become King of the World after "Titanic" tied the record for most Oscars for one film with 11. And Cameron himself took home three individual honors in the picture, director and film editing categories. There was no desperate need to "reward" Cameron again. Alfonso Cuarón arguably had one masterpiece already on his resume ("Children of Men") and "Gravity" is his second. It's time for the visionary to be honored by his peers.
Actors branch is at play
This is obvious. "Avatar" earned zero acting nominations (although Zoe Saldana got robbed in Best Supporting Actress) and it's hard to win Best Picture without one: only "The Last Emperor," "Braveheart," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and "Slumdog Millionaire" have pulled that off in the past 26 years. Not only is Sandra Bullock a lock for a Best Actress nomination, but the former winner could win again. Plus, let's remember, she won the first time for "The Blind Side" taking out none other than Meryl Streep (think about that for a second). Moreover, George Clooney could easily sneak into what is only a mildly competitive Best Supporting Actor category.
Warner Bros. is a veteran player
Remember, when 20th Century Fox managed "Avatar's" campaign they were a little late to the party not realizing they had a shot until close to Christmas. The studio also hadn't had a real Best Picture player since "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" six years earlier. That's a long time in awards season planning. While big Fox is now back in a groove after the success of "Life of Pi," that was not the case with "Avatar." Warner Bros., on the other hand, has had a Best Picture nominee 8 of the last 10 awards seasons (not counting two other films they co-produced and released internationally). They also have three of the last nine winners ("Million Dollar Baby," "The Departed," "Argo"). When you compare that to some of the more, um, vocal players it's quite impressive. In the same period The Weinstein Company has two wins, Fox Searchlight has one, the basically defunct Miramax has one and Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate (although not combined companies at the time) have two. Warner Bros. does things their way. It's not always flashy, but they are more focused at times than the other players on the board. Don't discount this, because WB's competitors don't.
Remember, just because it's an apple or an orange doesn't mean they are the same kind apple or orange. And "Gravity" is not "Avatar" in an awards season context.
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