It seems almost everyone has seen "Avatar," the James Cameron's sci-fi epic that was nominated for nine Oscars. The same cannot be said for director Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," a $12 million independent film that took the top prize on Sunday night. If you're one the many who are wondering what all the fuss is about, read our instant guide to this unlikely Oscar darling:
What is the "The Hurt Locker" about?
Mild spoiler alert ahead: the movie tells the story of a three-man bomb squad during the Iraq War. Following the untimely death of its superior officer, the squad is joined by Sgt. William James, a bomb disposal expert seemingly "addicted" to the "risk and the pleasure" of defusing explosive devices. His two young comrades worry his "unorthodox" approach will end up killing them all.
Are there any big stars in it?
Not really. Both Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce have cameo roles, but the main parts are played by the "distinctly unstarry" relative newcomers Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty.
Was it well reviewed?
Yes. According to film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 97% of its reviews are positive. Kenneth Turan, the LA Times' movie critic, summed it up as "an unqualified triumph." In comparison, Avatar's reviews are 82% positive.
What exactly is a hurt locker?
The title refers to the "physical trauma of being in close proximity, time after time, to the deafening blast of an explosion," explains Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian. It "basically means Shell Shock 2.0"
But it's a metaphor, right?
It is, says lead actor Jeremy Renner. At first it represents "the threat of death," he told New York Magazine. But it also refers to the "100lb bomb suit" that his character wears, and also the mental state the movie engenders. "I was in a kind of spiritual hurt locker for three months," he admits.
Is it an accurate portayal of the conflict?
Opinions are divided. Marine Tim Colomer, an Iraq veteran and former bomb disposal technician, told ABC News that the film comes "as close as possible" to an accurate portrayal of the "incredible danger, tension" and "fear" of the job. But photojournalist Michael Kamber wrote in the NY Times that "The Hurt Locker" is "completely implausible" and "wrong in almost every respect."
Is it a true story?
Again, it depends on who you ask. Sgt Jeffrey Sarver, a US Army bomb disposal expert, is suing the producers for basing the character of William James on him. He even says he coined the phrase "hurt locker." Mark Boal, the former war reporter who penned the screenplay, was embedded with Sgt. Sarver in Iraq, but claims his characters and scenarios were entirely fictional. (Watch an AP report about Sgt. Sarver's claim)
Was it the favorite to win big at the Oscars?
Yes and no. While pundits predicted Bigelow would get the Academy's nod as Best Director, many observers, including those at TMZ, were urging caution. According to Forbes, "Hurt Locker" was running a nose ahead of "Avatar" last week among Las Vegas oddsmakers.
What was this last minute e-mail controversy I heard about?
Nicolas Chartier, the film's producer, rather unwisely sent a mass e-mail in February pleading with Academy voters to support "The Hurt Locker" over "Avatar." Unfortunately, such tactics are against the Academy's rules. In a "rare formal reprimand," the Academy condemned Chartier's e-mail as an "ethical lapse" and barred him from attending Sunday's ceremony. Commentators debated whether the incident would damage the movie's Oscar chances.
Why the big rivalry with Avatar?
As well as sharing an equal number of Oscar noms, the two movies are linked by their directors' shared romantic past: Bigelow was married to Cameron from 1989 until 1991.
Do Bigelow and Cameron hate each other?
Unfortunately for lovers of celebrity spats, they do not. The directors remained "good friends" after their divorce, and Bigelow even asked Cameron to "peruse the script" of The Hurt Locker before she made it.
Do they at least hate each others' movies?
Again, no. Bigelow has said "Avatar" was one of her "favorite movies of the year," while Cameron called "The Hurt Locker" a "very, very strong picture," adding that he would "happily lose" to his ex-wife.