Thursday, April 22, 2010

Not that much better than Avatar

Warning, Spoilers dead ahead!

I finally saw 'The Hurt Locker' after much anticipation the other night. The basic plot (apparently loosely based on a true account by an embedded journalist) follows a three man Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD, basically guys that defuse bombs) team trying to get through the remainder of their tour in Baghdad after the trusted leader of the team is killed and replaced by an unorthodox adrenalin junkie.

Since it won Best Picture and all, I was interested to see if it was worthy of the hype. And if it was better than Avatar. Or Up. Or District 9, or the other nominees.

I'm not sure it is to be honest. It does some things very well. And does some other things really badly. I hated the cinematography, which was nauseatingly wobbly and zoomy to the point I actually got motion sickness and had to turn away from the screen for the second half of the movie, snatching occasional glances when I thought my stomach could stand it. I understand why handheld cameras are used, I appreciate the intimacy and feel it provides for the viewer and normally it doesn't bother me so much, but it was complete overkill the way they are used in this film, with jumpy quick pans and zooms everywhere, in almost every shot.

Where this film excels is in evoking the tension, dread, paranoia and the anything-could-happen-at-anytime-and-when-it-does-it-will-be-bad feeling of being part of an occupying force in the middle of an insurgency. The scenes on the streets of Baghdad where not only anyone, but possibly everyone might be out to get the protagonists while they are defusing improvised explosives in the streets are completely captivating. The three main protagonists are wholly convincing in their roles, and the way they interact with each other, doing a dangerous job, usually with an audience of local citizens ranging from the curious, apathetic, suspicious to openly hostile never fails to convince. It is one of the best depictions of unglamourous, dirty front line everyday soldiering I've seen so much so, that when the focus moves to more relatively domestic scenes back at the secure base camp, the pace and engagement noticeably flags.

The devil for this movie is in the details though. While the action scenes are superb, the contrivances and plot holes to engineer some of them and drive the movie forward are not. Moreover, for a film that seems to be trying very hard to present itself as an accurate depiction of this particular aspect of modern warfare, based on what I have read, it just isn't. I've never been in anyone's military, and wouldn't even claim to be well informed on specifics of weapons and tactics, but I do have a lifelong interest in these things, and based on what I have learned around the subject, there are a lot of things depicted on screen that go beyond implausible to flat out would-not-happen, or just don't make any sense (the sniper duel in the middle of the film is a perfect example, a scene that encapsulates both the best and worst aspects of the film). At times the film doesn't even adhere to its own internal logic and rules.

I accept the need for fictionalisation and license to be taken for dramtic purposes (even if this assumes that bomb disposal work isn't dramatic enough), and most of the time it doesn't bother me. I wouldn't comment on it except for the fact that this movie seems to be trading on being an accurate (albeit fictionalised) depiction of 'the way things were' (it is set in 2004), and that a lot of the audience will probably perceive it that way. The general opinion of the film amongst those who have actually been there and done the things portrayed seems to be very low because of the numerous and glaring inaccuracies.

I respect that this film doesn't treat its audience like idiots who need to be explicitly told every detail of exposition and set up, but at times this approach is taken too far (like the camera work), and leads to assumptions and presumptions being required by the audience that are often false, which is quite annoying when you are aware of it, and breaks the immersion into the film.

So basically when it is good, it is really really good, but it is also quite flawed. It is better than main rival Avatar, but I'm not sure it is 'Best Picture' good either. I thought fellow nominee UP was a better film than both of them at times.

The Judger saw it with me, if you want his take on the film, here 'tis.

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