Who Will Win Best Picture: Avatar or Hurt Locker?

Summit Entertainment/20th Century Fox

I had lunch in the Universal commissary last week with a talented Exec VP of production, and before we ordered our salads, she asked me if I thought the Academy would punish Avatar for being so successful.

It's a revealing question, indicating the resentment the studios sometimes feel toward the Academy for dismissing their best Oscar contenders in favor of less commercial indies.

I answered, "The Academy gave Best Picture to Titanic and Lord of the Rings, and those were the biggest movies of the year."

"Yes," she agreed. "But it would be insane this year if Avatar doesn't win." "If it doesn't, it will be because the story is the least interesting part of the movie, and the Academy loves story," I offered.

She made a funny face.

THIS YEAR it's particularly easy to interpret Academy-think, as the Globes increasingly (to the Academy's dismay) predict the Oscars, and there are few hard calls among the big races that won't mirror the Globes. But there is a feeling in the air that an upset could be in the offing for Best Picture, and my smart exec's question was reflective of this talk.

The big money, of course, is on Avatar to win, and it probably will, because Avatar is a production and a phenomenon of literally epic proportions. The industry can't afford not to honor a movie that pulled every pokey out of every quadrant that ever existed (and some that never did before), with many viewers seeing it more than twice.

The movie has transformed the business, demonstrating to an industry paralyzed by piracy that the way to get bodies into seats at theaters is to create events that aren't downloadable. Moreover, the scale of the undertaking itself, the grandeur of its technological achievement in an increasingly technologically driven business is an epic victory on its own merits, employing thousands of new breeds of employees. Filmmakers have been inspired by the techniques James Cameron innovated, opticians are inventing new personalized 3-D glasses, and applications and spin-offs the rest of us can't even imagine yet are in the works.

But it's not a given that Avatar will win. The Academy isn't the industry: it's a wholly separate, somewhat subversive subset of the industry. And the Academy voter prides himself on his individuality and independence. He thinks of himself as a sophisticated cineaste, and (though aging) as hip and informed. And when the studios decide that, say, Benjamin Button is going to win, it sometimes instead turns out that deep down, inside the soultree of the Academy (as Avatar would say), the heart is beating to the tune of "Jai Ho," and it's Slumdog that wins.

This year, it's Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker—an intensely psychological thriller about soldiers working together in Iraq—that poses the biggest threat to the mainstream favorite. Cinematically, philosophically, and technologically, Avatar and Hurt Locker couldn't be more impossible to compare. They're almost the inverse of one another. The weakest component of Avatar is its story, which might best be described as Tarzan, Fern Gully, Pocahontas, The Lion King, and Dances With Wolves all rolled into one. With Hurt Locker, on the other hand, it's the story that's unique, as opposed to its technology, which was necessarily simple.

What's more, the darker subtext of Avatar's simple story—rage at the Iraq war (then directed at Bush)—now feels outdated. The movie's hard-hearted American colonel—a stand-in for hard-hearted American power—is supplanted in today's headlines by Pentagon brass apologizing for having hit 12 civilians by mistake in our Afghanistan offensive.

Hurt Locker's complex portrayal of conflicted soldiers, on the other hand, feels very fresh. The movie has no politics—it doesn't venture to say who's the good guy and who's the bad. Rather, it's an existential, living-breathing connection to our soldiers' emotional peril on the ground. And while Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time (having brought in 680 million dollars in the U.S. and 1.3 billion abroad), if Hurt Locker wins, it would be the lowest-grossing Best Picture ever. It is astonishing and beautiful that these two movies are even from the same industry.

Of course, what the academy most likes to do when faced with such a dilemma is split the baby. Which in this case would mean giving the Best Picture to Avatar, and Best Director to Kathryn Bigelow. But as the winds increasingly turn to a Best Picture upset, the split-baby scenario could in fact turn out to be Cameron's best outcome. So the last hour could be the most exciting of the long night, as it should be and not often is. Though no one will actually be allowed to speak—at least not spontaneously, because the producers won't let them. There won't be enough time left, due to the Academy's decision this year to shake things up by having 10 Best Picture nominees.

The net effect is unlikely to change the race (despite some numerological spinning going on at the Weinstein Co. for Basterds), so much as to make the show suffer from compression. At the very moment we get ready for a memorable moment of personal revelation, that blasted music will come up, robbing us of any fun because the producers have run out of time, what with 10 clips, innumerable teleprompted presenters, and all the scripted gaiety. (Where are the producers of Jersey Shore when you need them?...)

For other races to watch, click here.