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Monday, August 24, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review District 9

Both: This is an interesting film that's worthy of your attention. It's not as bad as we feared, but it's not as good as its box office or buzz might lead you to believe.

Lawrence Person: District 9 is a moderately smart science fiction film married to a pretty stupid action film; most of the smart stuff is embedded in the milieu and setup; most of the stupid stuff is in the plot. It's mostly smart at the beginning, stupid in the middle, and mostly smart again at the end. Unfortunately, there's no way to disentangle the smart parts from the stupid parts; it's all of a piece with the story writer/director Neill Blomkamp wanted to tell.

Howard Waldrop: Something new — telling an alien invasion story in retrospect, and at the personal level. Yeah, the main guy's in charge early on, but then things go very, very badly...

Back story: The aliens ("prawns") came to Earth 20 years ago in a now inoperable Big Dumb Object (that's been hanging over Johannesburg all that time).

LP: The setup displays a lot of the skiffy novelty District 9 has working for it. Having the ship show up over Johannesburg instead of New York or Washington DC opens up a lot of heretofore unexplored storytelling possibilities. Moreover, the aliens first shown seem more like weak, disoriented and starving refugees than all-powerful galactic overlords. They seem, if anything, less intelligent than us (insert your own joke here), all but incapable of communicating with humans, and prone to mindless violence and arson. Some of the talking heads interviewed (lots of infodump here, but well-used and appropriate) suggest that the majority of prawns are in fact drones or members of a working caste, with the ruling or technocratic caste nowhere to be found.

HW: They were put into a ghetto township (District 9) which has of course turned into an alien shantytown. (There's also a camp run by a Nigerian warlord, who, among other things, sells the aliens catfood at exorbitant prices.) The aliens are to be relocated approximately 60 km out of town.

LP: The South African alien township setup is where much of the film's intellectual interest for astute SF viewers resides. Everything there is dirty, run-down and chaotic. The eviction process, in which illiterate aliens who may or may not understand English, have to sign their assent to the eviction notices, is both completely absurd and entirely believable as the result of bureaucratic ass-covering. The way things go pear-shaped is totally convincing because the situation was already totally screwed up in place where no one really seems to be in charge, less Alien Nation than Black Hawk Down. And the aliens are among the most alien we've seen, at least in an earth-based context. They're both pitiable and menacing, sometimes at the same time.

Likewise, the Nigerian warlord wanting to ingest alien flesh so he can use their technology is entirely too believable, coming from a continent where albinos are butchered to make magic potions and "sorcerers" are regularly arrested or lynched for using magic to shrink men's penises.

HW: Our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who works for the multinational corporation (MNU) running the show, is put in charge of the move to the new tent-city. Echoes of Apartheid are everywhere.

LP: One fear I had coming in was that the movie would hit the Apartheid theme too hard, but they didn't; it remains a subtext rather than an overtext.

HW: The aliens have weapons that humans can't use (it's tied to alien DNA). The early portions of the movie are done with cinema-vérité interviews with alien experts and people who knew and worked with Van De Merwe. Through the first day of the eviction process, we get to know the world of the film, the alien set-up, and so on. Things begin to go badly when the eviction process uncovers alien technology labs and weaponry.

LP: The alien technology bit seems singularly unconvincing in light of the setup we're given. Except for whoever came down in an apparent command module that fell off the ship, all the aliens were ferried down via helicopter. And the vast majority of the prawns we see seem incapable of planning more than five minutes into the future, much less assembling high technology out of human refuse. So whence came all these inexplicable high-tech weapons that seem as ubiquitous in District 9 as copies of Frampton Comes Alive were in second-hand record shops?

I can believe aliens who are dumb as toast. I can believe aliens smart enough to build a mech suit out of scrap. What I can't believe is that the smart aliens would let the dumb ones sell the mech suit to the Nigerian warlord for cat food.

But there are still many effective scenes. In one, Van De Merwe excitedly shows the cameras how the alien use some sort of tube system to feed deliquescing cow to alien eggs, then has the shanty torched, eggs and all.

HW: The protagonist gets a dose of icky stuff from the McGuffin and begins, like Jeff Goldblum in the remake of The Fly, or the guy in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, to mutate.

LP: Evidently the McGuffin canister contains Universal Plot Solvent. I like works where the McGuffin is more than just a McGuffin, i.e. something with unique and intrinsic properties of its own that changes the direction of the plot rather than just something people chase around. But the Magic Icky Fluid here has such a huge and different roles in the plot (It turns people into aliens! It powers spaceships! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!), that it's really where the Deep Stupidity begins. So it just happened to take our alien technocrat 20 years to distill this one canister, and he just happens to finish the day the eviction notices are delivered, and just happens to have his super-secret chemistry lab upon which the entire fate of his people depends up in a squalid shanty rather than hidden down in the super secret alien command module? That's an awful lot of Stupid to pack into a single plot contrivance...

Also, a warning: If you have a low gag threshold for icky fluids, you might want to avoid District 9. There are more on display here than anything this side of a David Cronenberg film.

HW: So far, except for the personal focus, pretty standard. Then we begin to follow the protagonist, like the guy in The Informer, as the world turns against him. (His father-in-law works for the multinational also.) As he runs and is hunted, we see all the tricks MNU uses to try and capture him. The story's been put out that he's highly contagious; that he's been porking aliens, etc. All he wants to do is get home to his wife.

LP: It was a nice touch having tabloid newspapers used as a tool of political oppression. It's a good thing that could never happen here.

The acting here is generally at least passable, and frequently better. Sharlto Copley is onscreen for the majority of the film, and he's not great (there are a lot of actors who could have done better with this role), but he's acceptable. The biggest flaws of the character comes from the script itself, which asks him to morph from a Woody Allen working in the DMV to Rambo in a mechsuit.

And there's one needlessly stupid cut where Van De Merwe is running just a few steps ahead of some guys chasing him with dogs, and then in the next scene he's escaped.

HW: We see more and more of the aliens in these scenes, especially one called — I kid you not — Christopher, and his young son. Christopher promises that if he gets back the McGuffin, he can cure Van De Merwe. Of course, Van De Merwe is mutating: there are some horrendous scenes of MNU testing him (because he can now use the prawn weapons) while they have him in captivity.

LP: MNU is every movieland Evil Multinational Corporation rolled into one. They might as well have Evil at Work motivational posters in their cubicles. The MNU doctor goes from zero to "hey, let's slice him up" in under 60 seconds, with absolutely no justification offered as to why he was "in perfect balance" or how they could actually commercialize the technology, much less hire recruits for it. ("So you want to turn my hands into alien claws so I can fire a really cool weapon? How about I join a company that doesn't want to induct me into the Brigade of Dr. Moreau?") Not to mention the budgetary justification for the whole secret genetics lab. ("So just what is it we're getting for our $20 million a year?" "Oh, we kill aliens in agonizing, horrible and disgusting ways." "And this is good for our bottom line how?") It makes Ernst Stavro Blofeld's operations look like models of prudent capital allocation...

HW: Christopher and his son are trying to re-power the command module with the McGuffin to get back to the Big Dumb Object. Meanwhile, Van De Merwe uses the alien technology to settle some MNU hash right and left. The final chase is protracted, but it works.

LP: The command module is another point of sloppiness. It's initially shown falling off as the ship hovered over Johannesburg. So how does it get buried all the way out in District 9?

On the bright side, lots of moments in the final 30 minutes play like you know exactly where things are going, but then take several unexpected and gratifying twists. And when the BDO finally does come to window-shattering, basso profundo life, the film generates a true frisson of awe.

HW: The special effects are not the usual ones. Each alien weapon has a different visual signature and a different effect on humans and objects. Some make humans disappear with a minimum of residue; others vaporize them and throw gooey stuff everywhere. That shows more imagination than most movies.

LP: Some of the alien technology was cool, others looked like those from any number first person shooter video games of recent vintage. But that's among the least of the film's problems.

HW: Don't go expecting another Independence Day — you won't get it, and this film communicates with you on a more emotional level than anything in that film ever did.

It's not a great film, but is pretty intelligent, (given that everyone works for the equivalent of Yoyodyne). The aliens show various levels of intelligence — just like the humans. And you're actually rooting for them at the end (which has an ambivalent but hopeful ending on the species level, and a devastating one on the personal).

LP: The movie is stupid in ways that big action films are frequently stupid, but it's smart in ways that films of human-alien interaction usually aren't. There's a sense of interesting and unexplained things beyond the boundaries of the movie, of aliens that are genuinely alien. That's just enough for us to give the film a marginal thumbs up. Your mileage may vary.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka

Official Website:

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Inconstant Man, or, Have Birthday Suit, Will Time Travel: A Review of The Time Traveler's Wife

by Gary Westfahl

When a man is sitting in a predominantly female audience and watching a preview of the latest Hugh Grant movie, he has to realize that he does not represent the target audience for the upcoming film. Other clues would include the very title of the film, The Time Traveler's Wife, and the fact that it is based upon a book written by a woman and was adapted for the screen by Bruce Joel Rubin, best known for crafting the ectoplasmic tearjerker Ghost (1990).

Still, all of the husbands and boyfriends who are dragged into theatres by their significant others (including same-sex partners with a fondness for romantic films) will probably find themselves enjoying the film instead of, as is more typical, periodically checking their watches. For Rubin has not only remained faithful to, and efficiently streamlined, Audrey Niffenegger's sprawling novel, but he also, thankfully, has dampened its romance-novel ambience: the wife, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), is here less idealized and saintlike in her infinite patience with her wayward spouse, and the husband, Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), is more grounded than the novel's hapless lost soul in desperate need of a woman's steadfast love and wise nurturing. And although the focus of the film remains the conventional chick-flick scenario — a man and a woman who seem like complete opposites nonetheless fall in love and forge a successful relationship — there is an interesting idea or two lurking in its bowels, for those who care to ferret them out.

The premise of the story is that DeTamble, since childhood, keeps spontaneously leaping forward or backward in time, usually to familiar places during his lifespan, leading to various complications due to his sudden absences at inopportune moments, his stark-naked appearances in the past and future, and his frantic efforts to find clothes and escape capture or violence while he waits to be returned to the present. The novel and film deploy variant gobbledygook to explain all of this as the result of a strange genetic disorder, but it is just as well that their explanatory efforts are minimal, for this is unquestionably a vision of time travel derived not from pondering physicists' equations but from watching Hollywood movies. (For example, Niffenegger's conceit that a time traveler would necessarily arrive naked is obviously lifted from The Terminator [1984] and its sequels.) The novelist's intent, manifestly, was to have DeTamble's time-traveling function as a literalization of the problem that wives habitually confront: seemingly attractive husbands who constantly feel compelled to keep drifting away, physically or mentally, from their virtuous spouses. Thus, one wife I know whose husband regularly vanishes from the family room to work on his computer or watch some wretched science fiction movie can undoubtedly relate to Clare's plight. In this respect, The Time Traveler's Wife recalls another recent movie that employs a man's time-related idiosyncracy as a metaphor for what's wrong with men, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) (review here). (Interestingly, Brad Pitt was originally envisioned as this film's protagonist and earned a credit as an executive producer; perhaps he opted out to avoid successive appearances in overly similar films.)

Since Henry's habits clearly make him an unsuitable husband, and since Clare still marries him despite knowing full well about his egregious flaws, the question to confront is: why do women keep choosing the wrong man, and why do men keep growing up to become the wrong man? Niffenegger's answer would appear to be — bad parenting, which engenders children who make bad choices. That is, after Henry's mother Annette (Michelle Nolden) dies in a car accident witnessed by Henry when he is five, his father Richard (Arliss Howard) becomes a distant, insensitive alcoholic whom he comes to despise, while Clare's mother Lucille (Fiona Reid) is cruel to her daughter, mentally ill, and sometimes suicidal. This is one aspect of the novel that the film softens: Philip is observed drinking his life away in one scene, but he promptly sobers up, shaves, and becomes a nice guy for the duration of the film, and Lucille is barely glimpsed and her issues are never discussed.

These are particular examples of a general pattern in the film that might disappoint readers of Niffenegger's novel, though it may have been unavoidable, given the disparate demands of novels and films. In novels, writers have the time to include and fully develop any number of intriguing secondary characters; in adapting novels as films, screenwriters are often obliged to focus their attention on the protagonists and either eliminate other characters or reduce them to bland figures in the background. So, while the Abshires' African-American servants and Philip's supportive Korean-American landlady Mrs. Kim may have been left out of the film because they seemed too much like racial stereotypes, their presence would have contributed greater diversity to the film's predominantly Anglo-American cast (the only exception being Jane McLean, a Canadian born in the Philippines who plays Clare's friend Charisse). Also absent from the film are Henry's depressed ex-girlfriend Ingrid, her new lesbian girlfriend Celia, and Henry's colleagues at the library where he works, who attribute his habit of vanishing and reappearing naked to compulsive exhibitionism. And the novel's version of Charisse's husband Gomez (Ron Livingston) is a delightful eccentric who makes witty remarks, spouts facetious Marxist rhetoric, moves from his career as a lawyer to an elected position as a city alderman, and is secretly in love with Clare — none of which surfaces in the movie, making the film's Gomez a dishearteningly colorless character.

The truncation and homogenization of Niffenegger's supporting cast may account for another aspect of the film that left me dissatisfied. For filmgoers of a certain age, one of the pleasures of watching contemporary films is seeing stars from their younger days show up in supporting roles; thus, when my wife dragged me into the theatre to watch Four Christmases (2008), I could at least enjoy Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Jon Voight effortlessly stealing the spotlight from stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as their dysfunctional parents. Yet in The Time Traveler's Wife, all of the smaller parts are played by actors that most people have never heard of. Were the producers pinching pennies, or were they simply unable to attract more prominent performers to roles that essentially gave them nothing to do?

Other aspects of the novel's texture were lost in translation to film. Niffenegger draws upon her own experience as an art professor to offer interesting specifics about Clare's artworks, which include paper sculpture and kinetic sculpture, and there are details about Henry's job as a librarian in the Special Collections section of the Newberry Library. However, the art produced by the film's Clare is virtually unseen, and there is only one brief scene of Henry in the library. And a recurring source of minor conflicts in the novel is that Henry loves punk rock while Clare prefers more mainstream fare; the film's barely discernible vestiges of this theme are a scene in which Henry's friend Gomez is seen exiting a Pavement concert and the fact that the song played for Henry and Clare's wedding dance is a slow version of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a peculiar choice, one would think, for a wedding anthem, but the song's relevance to the film's situation cannot be denied, as its lyrics reference lovers "taking different roads" and a man with "timing that flawed" and "failings exposed"). In these changes, Rubin's concern was not so much efficiency as another characteristic difference between novels and films: novelists are regularly encouraged to particularize their characters as much as possible, while screenwriters wish to make their characters broadly appealing. In this case, Rubin might have feared that some filmgoers would be less inclined to like Henry if they were overly aware of his intelligence and capabilities as a research librarian or his unusual musical proclivities.

As another difference between novels and films that works to this film's disadvantage, the experience of reading about something can be utterly unlike the experience of actually watching something. In both novel and film, the adult Henry regularly visits Clare between the ages of six and eighteen to provide friendship and guidance, and in the novel, all of this seems innocent and admirable enough. However, when one actually watches an adult stranger approach an unaccompanied child and start to befriend her, it is bound to be disturbing to modern audiences. This is particularly true in the scene when Henry vanishes on his wedding night, with the wedding ring left on the bed functioning as a telling symbol of the unfaithfulness that his disappearances represent. And where does he go? To visit with Clare as a small child. In his actions, then, Henry expresses a preference for the company of a little girl to the company of an adult sexual partner — which could be said to represent both the lingering immaturity of the typical adult male and something much creepier about his true character.

To explain what might interest viewers of this film who are not enamored of romantic dramas, I must discuss something that might be regarded as a "spoiler": the fact that Henry and Clare eventually have a daughter, Alba (portrayed at the age of five and ten, respectively, by real-life sisters Tatum McCann and Hailey McCann), who inherits her father's ability to travel through time. But even at a young age, Alba seems to be better at time-traveling than her father. For one thing, although the film does not make this explicit, she has apparently figured out how to take her clothes along during temporal journeys, for in contrast to the ill-fitting or incongruous clothes that Henry is often forced to don, the time-traveling Alba always appears to be wearing her own, perfectly-sized clothing. And we are told that she, unlike Henry, is learning how to control when she travels through time and where she goes; for example, she tells Henry that she can stop herself from involuntarily time-traveling by singing, but Henry finds that he cannot use the same trick, telling her that "I can't sing." Finally, while Henry displays no interest in the plight of his younger self until, as an adult, he briefly shows up at the scene of the fatal accident to comfort the young Henry, Alba as a ten-year-old displays preternatural maturity in already going back to see her five-year-old self in order to help her deal with an impending tragedy.

If we accept the time-traveling Henry as an embodiment of the ways that men have typically acted in the past, then, Alba might be regarded as an embodiment of the ways that women will typically act in the future. That is, as women adapt to the freedom of having careers once reserved for men, they will also be free to be wayward, inconstant wives who force patient husbands to endure their periodic absences; yet Alba suggests that they will do so in a manner that is more controlled and more sensitive to their spouses. As the child of Henry and Clare, Alba seems to be developing an approach to time-traveling that combines the stereotypically male restlessness of Henry (which, after all, can be regarded as a virtue as well as a flaw) and the stereotypically female constancy of Clare (which after, all, can be regarded as a flaw as well as a virtue). Thus, it might be worthwhile for either Niffenegger or the film's producers to explore the possibility of a sequel, The Time Traveler's Husband, which would feature the adult Alba coping with her own relationship problems, perhaps with periodic visits from her time-traveling father. (As it happens, Googling turns up an obscure novel with that title, but it appears to be an inconsequential time-travel romance.)

There is another possible direction for a sequel, hinted at in the novel, which is unlikely to interest either Niffenegger or the film's producers. In the novel, Henry's medical consultant Dr. Kendrick (played by Stephen Tobolowsky in the film) discovers the genetic cause of his condition and, by transplanting genes, is able to breed some time-traveling mice. The implication is that other people might naturally share Henry's abnormality or that, through genetic engineering, more and more people might come to possess his abilities. What would it be like, then, to live in a society in which many people are routinely jumping into the past or the future? However, writers with little experience in science fiction will generally prefer to deal with scientific innovations as temporary irruptions in an ultimately maintained status quo, while science fiction writers will, more creatively and realistically, generally seek to explore how scientific innovations will permanently disrupt the status quo. Hence, we observe in this film, as in other films, a time traveler here and a time traveler there, but we rarely if ever observe an entire society of time travelers.

I feel compelled to comment on one minor aspect of the film, unrelated to anything else discussed here, which I found to be utterly stunning. Without saying too much about later scenes in the film, I will note that we briefly see a stag standing in a snowy forest and then running away. It looked completely realistic to me, but buried in the film's credits is an acknowledgment of the company that created the "computer generated stag." That is also why the film's credits lack the standard comment that no animals were harmed in the making of the film — because no animals were used in the making of the film. Truly, we are rapidly approaching the time when advances in computer technology will make both animal and human performers unnecessary. The release of The Time Traveler's Wife was delayed for almost a year because, after shooting the film, Eric Bana shaved his head to appear in Star Trek (2009) (review here), and when some reshooting was deemed necessary, producers had to wait until his hair grew back. In a few years, filmmakers would surely deal with such a problem by creating a computer-generated Bana to appear in the added scenes, or by filming a bald Bana and adding some computer-generated hair.

Granted, some people may be disheartened by the notion that living performers may someday be replaced by computer-generated images, but science marches on, and society marches on, and it is pointless to reject scientific advances and social advances, including the fact that the tropes of science fiction are now being reduced to premises for character-driven romantic dramas. As another way to interpret Henry's situation, it is clear in both novel and film that he mostly travels into his past, instead of the future, suggesting that his problem might be characterized as an unhealthy attachment to the past and an unwillingness to adjust to the realities of the present. To avoid being like Henry, then, men everywhere should happily roll with the flow and allow their wives and significant others to drag them into theatres to see The Time Traveler's Wife — because, at some later moment, they can always, in the manner of their gender, contrive to vanish from sight and obtain some intellectual stimulation from the idea of time travel by reading a science fiction novel.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

Starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Arliss Howard, Ron Livingston, Jane McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, Philip Craig, Michelle Nolden, Fiona Reid, Hailey McCann, and Tatum McCann

Official Website: The Time Traverler's Wife

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