It appears that the Oscar race has come down to a battle between Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and James Cameron (Avatar). (Jason Reitman and Up in the Air are running a close third.) Many people have pointed out that Bigelow and Cameron were once married, for about two years, between 1989 and 1991, so it has become a battle of the sexes as well as a battle of the exes. It might be revealing, then, to revisit their one cinematic collaboration, Strange Days (1995). Cameron is credited as the writer of the original story and co-authored the screenplay with former film critic Jay Cocks, while Bigelow directed. It was an expensive film, with a budget of around $42 million, and a flop, with a U.S. gross of only about $7 million. The few people who praised the film found it to be technically and visually dazzling, though most complained that it was empty and/or conventional.
We can break down this reaction another way. Cameron wrote an empty and conventional script, and Bigelow did the best she could with it, directing the hell out of it and giving it a life pulse, a palpable darkness and an astonishing visual atmosphere. Unfortunately, the usual thing happened. Bigelow took the blame for the movie's performance and did not work again for six years. Meanwhile, just two years later, Cameron was awarded $200 million to make Titanic. He was even allowed to write his own script. Cameron appears to be invulnerable to any kind of criticism against his work; ironically, Avatar received some of the same kind of reviews as Strange Days, claiming visual excellence and creative emptiness, yet -- even without Bigelow's life-pulse -- his film went on to earn dozens of times the amount of cash that Strange Days did.
For the record, I generally like Cameron's work and have enjoyed all of his films up to Avatar. And in the 1980s, their films were equal in quality. But today Bigelow appears to be growing, searching for something more in her work, while Cameron appears to be stuck, and even regressing. Life's not fair, I guess, but this time underdog Bigelow has a fighting chance, and even if she doesn't win an Oscar, she's probably not going to be out of work this time, which is good for all of us. Meanwhile, let's take a look at this opener for Strange Days. Marvel at the furious energy of this footage, and look at the amazing way Bigelow gets around Cameron's dialogue by pumping up the scene and using shadows and long shots. It's pretty clear who the real talent is here.