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Monday, March 8, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Alice in Wonderland

Both: This must have looked like a really good idea on paper.

Lawrence Person: Another week, another visually-impressive-but-thematically-empty remake. This is better than The Wolfman, but not as interesting as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They tried to graft a standard Plot Coupon fantasy quest onto what was a surreal dreamscape lacking any narrative spine. Big mistake.

Howard Waldrop: The only problem is, it's Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, not Carroll's (of course, you could say the same thing about all versions, from the 1933 all-star one to Disney's 1951 animated feature.)

In this one, Alice's story has become tied to the quest to defeat the Jabberwock. There's a high-Victorian backstory that pokes some fun at 19th century expectations, and Alice is in her early 20s. This all adds nothing to the original going-to-sleep-on-a–picnic setup for a younger girl.

LP: The framing device is all kinds of wrong: 1) It's dull and slows the movie down; 2) Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there's no correspondence between real and dreamland characters; 3) It's a work of distinct moral cowardice. By holding up the mores of 19th century English high society for 21st century American audiences to feel smugly superior to, nothing in the film challenges its target audience's beliefs in even the slightest way. (Laugh while you can; some 120 years hence, you'll look every bit as stupid and prejudiced a rube as Lord Ascot the Younger looks here.)

HW: The visuals are of course pretty good. All the trappings of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (and a little of Through the Looking Glass) are here. It reminded me in many ways of the Dennis Potter Dreamchild (1985), where the Alice story was used (both biography and fiction) to make some real observations about the nature of dreams.

The characters are here: the movie tries to make daylight sense out of what essentially is a dream-narrative, to not very great effect. Placing the Jabberwock quest over the Wonderland narrative makes things both clearer and more diffuse at the same time.

LP: Once it becomes your stand good-vs.-evil dynastic succession plot, the whole thing is on rails and the movie has no more surprises left up its sleeves. Alice dithers over picking up the vorpal sword, but no one over the age of 14 will have the slightest doubt what she'll choose in the end. (China Miéville's Un-Lun-Dun, in which a secondary character becomes incensed at being relegated to the Funny Sidekick role in the Grand Prophecy and short circuits the entire creaky machination, has more courage in its little finger than this has in the entire movie.)

And stripped of their dream-logic, many elements cease to be surreal and start becoming deeply stupid. Why can't Alice just chow down enough Eat Me to grow big enough to crush the Jabberwock like a bug? If the Cheshire Cat can materialize and dematerialize at will, why not let him retrieve the vorpal sword? Etc.

HW: Depp's role (the Mad Hatter) is ill-defined on the Wonderland level, but okay within Burton's narrative. He's not mad enough on one level, but over-the-top in others. It just doesn't go far enough to bring across the mercury-poisoned pathos of the book. (The Henson Workshop creature of Dreamchild did.)

LP: Depp's Hatter switches between a sort of High English Twee and a vaguely menacing Bobbie Burns-esque brogue. Like most of his non-realistic roles, his portrayal is an odd choice that he somehow makes work though his complete mastery of the character's exterior qualities.

HW: Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a one-note storybook Evil Older Sister role (so's the book's Queen). I'm sure it's not all that easy to act when your head, like Betty Boop's, is wider than your shoulders (or so it seems).

LP: In many ways the relish with which Carter's Red Queen devours the virtual scenery is one of the best things about the film. She obviously had fun with the role, and there's something supremely satisfying about the line "Prepare the Jabberwock for war!" (Now if only she and the Knave of Hearts didn't keep reminding me of the video for Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"...)

Sadly, Mia Wasikowska's Alice doesn't have the presence to carry the movie. She's not the main problem, but she doesn't come across as a particularly strong protagonist, and she lacks real chemistry with Depp's pseudo-love-interest Hatter.

HW: Christopher Lee voiced the Jabberwock's resident-evil lines, and Michael Gough's dodo's pretty good, and even has the cane right out of Tenniel's illustrations. (Must have seemed like Hammer Films in 1962 on the set.) The voices are mostly just right (although I miss Percy Helton's squeaking White Rabbit from the 1951 Disney movie).

LP: Any movie version of Alice in Wonderland sets itself up for a difficult task, namely to recapture the mixture of whimsy and menace a young reader has upon first encountering the book. (Which is why, on paper, a Tim Burton version must have looked like such a sure thing, as Beetle Juice and A Nightmare Before Christmas both come so close to the sort of balance a successful version would require.) All movie adaptations of it fail for one reason or another; Burton's Wonderland fails because the linear nature of the plot derails the head-long, out-of-control dream-logic of the original, the feeling of being plunged into a world where nothing makes any sense and things keep changing too fast to escape. It fails because it's ultimately entirely too predictable and safe. When you can make friends with the Bandersnatch, Wonderland has all the menace of a trip to Hot Topic.

HW: This reminded me of nothing so much as Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, a movie I don't generally like. Stunning, in some cases, visuals (I saw it flat). [LP: I saw it in 3D IMAX, and wished I hadn't, as the 3D actually made it harder to focus on what was going on; the scene of her falling down the rabbit hole was particularly annoying. And for all the ballyhoo around the "new" 3D, it still looks more like receding lines of successive planes (like a Renaissance trompe l'oeil backdrop) than real life. Unless you're a fan of the technique, I don't think the extra money is worth it.] The wrong (but a similar) story with all the characters used in a revisionist way. It's not a mess, it's just not Lewis Carroll, either.

This is not the book: it's the book's little brother.

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 Tim Burton

Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

Official Website: Alice in Wonderland: Characters

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review The Wolfman

Howard Waldrop: Poor Curt Siodmak (who made it to 102). To have your 1941 screenplay (which gave us most of the cinematic werewolf tropes we have) have every bit of the poetry and life sucked out of it by two screenwriters and a director. (Maybe they thought the soulfulness in Benicio del Toro's eyes would make up for it.)

Lawrence Person: The Wolfman is a gorgeously art-directed mediocrity, combining the look and pace of a lush costume drama with the clichés and gore of a modern horror film. It's professional enough to hold your attention while in the theater, but the plodding, by-the-numbers nature of the beast (the film itself, not its titular character) is enough to make you regret the time spent there.

HW: To the original setup (long-gone American-raised son — here, the second and younger one, an actor to boot — receives a letter from his brother's fiancée, to return to the ancestral pile — the brother's disappeared and things are afoot) they've added nothing, only mixed things around to no good purpose. In the approximate Claude Raines role is Anthony Hopkins. There's Art Malik as a wrinkled old Singh retainer (not in the original) who 40 years ago would have been played by Christopher Lee or Michael Ripper.

There's the fiancée (Emily Blunt) in the Evylyn Ankers role. It's not bad casting — it's just wrong — Maleva the gypsy is played by Geraldine Chaplin. (I have never missed Maria Ouspenskaya more, since she died after a fire in 1949, smoking a cigar in bed.) Her (Siodmak) folk-poetry piece "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night..." is used as prologue to the movie. It's the only minute of poetry here.

LP: Director Joe Johnston seems to have gone to the Zack Snyder School of Unsubtle Direction, with a graduate work in The Institute for Horror Move Clichés. Music cues herald every impending werewolf attack with all the subtlety of a Mexican soccer announcer. And something like 90% of those attacks have the exact same visual characteristics: character pauses for lingering shot, only to have werewolf leap onto them from outside the frame, carrying them (or at least significant body parts) off the other side of the frame. Even the boo-shock jump scares (including, yet again, the "character wakes up from the nightmare only to find he's still in it" cliché) are painfully predictable. Pick any random minute from the last thirty of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and you'll find more imaginative gore than is on display in this entire movie.

Even potentially interesting scenes, like Talbot's grim hydro- and electroshock treatment sessions in a Victorian insane asylum, are marred by thuddingly unsubtle direction. The assistant orderly is a grinning sadist (complete with evil giggle) while the Head Professor Doktor Shrink (Antony Sher) comes across like a caricature of Sigmund Freud as penned by Julius Streicher.

Del Toro (a very effective actor in the right role, as witnessed by Traffic or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) looks like Lawrence Talbot, but he wears the role like an uncomfortable and ill-fitting suit. He doesn't have the bearing and presence you would expect of a leading stage actor. Except for the transformation and asylum sequences, his acting runs the gamut from A to C, the change from his brooding anguish over his brother's death to his guilty anguish over his lycanthropic crimes having all the dramatic arc of a stubby pencil. Sometimes he comes alive; his anguish during the hydrotherapy scenes are entirely convincing. (Then again, plunge me into a tank of ice-cold water, and I guarantee you I wouldn't need my Drama degree to make my screams convincing.) If the script ever lets him crack a smile, I must have missed it.

It's amazing how little Anthony Hopkins elevates the material. He does fine, but as one of the best in the business, you expect him to give you more than the distant, icy superiority he offers up here. Contrast this with the splendid work he did in The Edge (another mediocre movie), where he not only acts Alec Baldwin under the table, but steals his wallet, car keys and shoes to boot.

Emily Blunt is fine in a criminally underwritten role. It's not that she completely lacks chemistry with Del Toro, but their characters are each so sunk in their respective miseries that what chemistry they do have is on the order of "Hey, once we're both less depressed, maybe we should consider going out for coffee."

Surprisingly, the actor who far and away comes off best is Hugo Weaving, who can be very uneven (his one-note portrayal of Elrond was probably the weakest major character in The Lord of the Rings). But here his droll, intelligent Scotland Yard inspector steals the show, as well as breathing much-needed life into every one of his scenes.

HW: There are a tiny couple of redemptions (too late) here. Prosthetics have been berry, berry good to lycanthropy since An American Werewolf in London. They've only gotten better, and part of the audience (who'd evidently never seen this stuff before) gasped. And the idea of one werewolf, stalking another, with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with silver bullets, seems to be a first.

But the whole thing seems in the end unnecessary. It's not as big a waste of celluloid as the Nicolas Cage remake of Wicker Man was, but then nothing is, is it?

LP: If you have a hankering for a werewolf film, well, this is a werewolf film. And it has some gorgeous art direction (which was Joe Johnston's role in Hollywood before he took up directing). But there are a lot better werewolf films out there. Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers, a tale of British soldiers running into a pack of werewolves while on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands, probably had about 1/50th of the budget for this film and was at least ten times as good.

HW: There are so many ways to lose all the poetry in a classic screenplay that this one seems destined to be taught in Screenwriting 101 under the heading "Missing the Boat."

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 Joe Johnston

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (based on Curt Siodmak's original screenplay)

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Antony Sher

Official Website: The Wolfman Movie - Now Playing - Official Movie Site...

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Lawrence Person: If you liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, you'll like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's the most Terry Gilliam film that Terry Gilliam has done in the last two decades. That's a good thing. Mostly.

Howard Waldrop: A wonder-show movie (the Alamo Drafthouse ran the trailer for The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao beforehand) that harks back to Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival and Something Wicked This Way Comes, only this one is like a road-show version of a cross between King Lear and Mother Courage and Her Children.

There's an immortal Dr. Parnassus, his daughter, a little-person factotum, also a helper who loves the daughter, who plays Mercury in the presentation. There's a deal with the devil (Tom Waits, dressed like Walter Houston in All That Money Can Buy, AKA The Devil and Daniel Webster) and a Hanged Man who is important to the plot. (There's lots of Tarot imagery (and practice) in this, as in The Fisher King.)

Parnassus' wonder-wagon, like Li'l Abner's refrigerator, has more room on the inside than the outside (it's a 3-story, 50 ton caravan, pulled by one horse). There's a magic mirror (played by aluminum foil in a frame) that people go through, like in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. The cheesiness is intentional.

LP: Parnassus and company attempt to play for indifferent, hostile, drunken crowds of modern Britons, the vast majority of whom have no desire to step through the proffered magic mirror, and those that do tend to choose the path of the Devil (in the form of various incarnations of instant sinful gratification) than Parnassus' path of enlightenment. The mirror seems to lead to the inside of Parnassus' mind, and functions as an external manifestation of the person's internal state; watching it brought back a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: "This is what it looked like inside Salvador Dali's head." Things begin to change when they come across the hanged man (Heath Ledger, in his last role), who turns out to be not entirely dead, possibly thanks to a special flute he had lowered into his windpipe. (Which is strange, because usually a magic coin is the instrument of resurrection...)

HW: This is probably Gilliam's best-integrated movie since Brazil. There are great scenes (a gondola on a lagoon filled with giant shoes is one) but the contrast between the set pieces and story aren't so great they cheese you off, as they did in The Brothers Grimm.

LP: This is much better than The Brothers Grimm, mainly because its flaws tends to be those in most of Gilliam's films (a rambling plot, an out-of-control quality to some scenes, set pieces that overwhelm the actors playing against them, etc.), which is infinitely preferable to the standard Hollywood bullshit that ruined The Brothers Grimm.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is almost a checklist not only of Munchausen, but of all Gilliam's tropes. Fantastic and amazing otherworldly landscapes? Check. (There's a monastery here every bit as imposing and unlikely as The Fortress of Ultimate Evil in Time Bandits.) Intermixture of fantasy and reality? Check. Colorful but shabby stage facades? Check. Midget? Check. (I had forgotten that Verne Troyer had a part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, predating his Mini-Me fame.) There's even Lily Cole as a redhead every bit as young and hot as Uma Thurman was in Munchausen, and a policemen-in-pantyhose song-and-dance number that could have come straight out of his Monty Python days.

I'm with Howard to a point, but I don't think it works as well as The Fisher King, and maybe not even as well as Twelve Monkeys, which was a solid film, but not one that blew me away. (Much the same as my reaction to this one, though for largely different reasons.)

HW: Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus — thinking about him 45 years ago in The Sound of Music gives you cognitive dissonance. It's his best acting in years. (Now he could play Lear.) The performances are fine throughout.

It's not a great movie, but it's fairly controlled (as controlled as any Gilliam movie can be) and there are some great set pieces (one's set in a landscape half Monty Python and half Grant Wood). There are bits of other movies, references to paintings, and in general good cultural fun. I sure didn't want my money back, which I did after The Brothers Grimm.

LP: Of all the films we've seen semi-recently, the one this most resembles is MirrorMask, right down to the externalized internal landscape, the traveling carnival atmosphere, and even the Commedia dell'arte masks. It's a shame Gilliam and Neil Gaiman have never collaborated on a movie, as they share some of the same central concerns, such as the primal role of Story in underpinning the world, and the vital necessity of fantasy. And I like to think that a Gilliam-helmed Sandman movie would be something to behold.

This is a good film that's just too uneven to be great (the rambling nature of the plot, the murky mystical underpinnings of the Parnassus' particular form of salvation (be happy, give up your material wealth, and... that's it?), and an ending that just doesn't quite come together as well as you would hope). And sometimes the sheer randomness puzzles you. Sure, having Tom Waits as the Devil pop of the head of a giant steam-powered babushka mother is sort of cool, but what exactly does it mean?

Make no mistake: This is definitely better than any movie we reviewed last year. But I can't help thinking that I've seen all of these moves before. Gilliam's films are still spanking fresh compared to Extruded Hollywood Movie Product, but they do tend to reiterate a fairly limited range of topics, and maybe he should try something (ahem) completely different for a change. Not that I'm saying he should make, say, a straight crime drama, and Martin Scorsese should make a Gilliamesque fantasy. (No wait, strike that. Even as failures, both of those would probably be all kinds of awesome.) But I would like to see something different from him. Still, I'm starting to wonder if my varying degrees of disappointment with each new Gilliam film is the fault of Gilliam, or my own longing for him to recapture the wonder of Brazil. How can you blame a man for never again equaling one of the greatest films ever made?

In a way, it's hard not to see Dr. Parnassus' traveling caravan as an unkind and deeply unfair metaphor for Gilliam's career (especially the way studios manage to turn each of his critical successes into a commercial failure). It's a shabby, broken-down, shambling remnant of what was once a glamorous conveyance, a permanently poverty-stricken sideshow tottering from one patchy, indifferent audience to another. But, whispers the showman, if you'd just ignore the tattered banners and bailing wire of the exterior, and step into the Imaginarium itself, oh, what amazing wonders and glories still await you...

HW: The movie's slowly creeping into theaters a city at a time (so far, LA, NYC, Boston and now Austin. It's coming to one near YOU, sometime in YOUR future.

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 Terry Gilliam

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown

Starring Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Official Website: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Official Site

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Energy Is Borrowed: A Review of Avatar

by Gary Westfahl

All right; the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar are indeed dazzling, and one can regard the film as ground-breaking in demonstrating, more so than any other recent film I know of, that computer animation can not only hold its own against live-action film but might actually replace it. Yes, 500 million dollars invested in the latest technology does enable a filmmaker to make twelve-foot-high, blue-skinned aliens generated through performance capture just as sympathetic and involving as skilled actors filmed in the ordinary fashion. Still, after filmgoers have emotionally experienced those aliens' agonies of defeat and thrills of victory, some will feel compelled to actually think about the story that has enthralled them for almost three hours, and they are the ones who will feel less inclined to celebrate Cameron's achievement.

Prior to the film's release, the internet buzz was that Avatar was a ripoff of Poul Anderson's classic novelette "Call Me Joe" (1957), and admittedly there are some significant similarities: both stories involve paraplegic men who assume mental control of artificially created alien beings designed to survive on harsh alien planets, decide that they prefer being active aliens to being handicapped humans, and eventually choose to be aliens all of the time. But Anderson's novelette took place on Jupiter, not a distant world named Pandora, and featured a newly created sort of intelligent being introduced to an environment without intelligent life, not an enormous humanoid crafted to resemble, and mingle with, members of an indigenous intelligent species. Thus, even if its basic concept is not entirely original, the film does take it in a different direction. Yet the film also recalls Anderson's work in a broader fashion: one of that author's many talents was filling his alien worlds with memorably distinctive flora and fauna, as indicated by one evocative passage from "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1971): "Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steel-flowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them on iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled." Here, although the larger, dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit Pandora are mostly things that we have all seen before, Cameron additionally provides his world with many smaller and subtler forms of bizarre alien life — such as tiny purple lizards, floating fluorescent wisps, and spiraling plants that contract into a bulb when touched — that represent precisely the sorts of extraterrestrial life that Anderson might have envisioned and described.

Anderson is not the only science fiction writer that this film brings to mind: its larger-than-life warsuits, manipulated by soldiers inside of them, are reminiscent of predecessors ranging from the fighting suits of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) to those in the Gundam Mobile Suit anime series (1979-1980), and a key subplot, depicting how members of the Pandoran race, the Na'vi, form a lifelong mental bond with large flying creatures that they then ride upon, seems lifted right out of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (1968) and its many sequels. Still, the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook. In sum, recalling the old Hollywood axiom that stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from several sources is research, one can say that James Cameron's Avatar is well researched. Or, as Cameron might defend himself, quoting one of his platitude-spouting Na'vi, "All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back."

When you follow in the footsteps of giants, though, you may also replicate their mistakes, and this enormous exercise in borrowing-and-giving-it-back is particularly striking in the ways that it echoes both the virtues of Le Guin's story — a richly developed alien ecosystem and culture — and its major flaw — a one-dimensional portrait of an implacably evil military commander which engenders a one-dimensional and unpersuasive message about saintly savages being oppressed by scientifically advanced warriors. The problematic and uncharacteristic didacticism of her story was recognized by Le Guin herself in the "Afterword" she wrote for its original appearance in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), wherein she complained that in creating the story she had been forced by her muse to "moralize," even though "I am not very fond of moralistic tales." Of course, while Le Guin was writing, the still-raging Vietnam War was very much on her mind, and "The Word for World Is Forest," like Avatar itself, invites consideration as a parable about that conflict. Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009, and while one might posit that all filmmakers who matured during the Vietnam War must someday deal with that subject in their work, Cameron is entering the game rather late in his career, which makes his state-of-the-art film seem curiously old-fashioned in one respect. Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens. (And a brief reference to "shock and awe" tactics cannot conceal the fact that this film is all about Vietnam and has nothing to do with the Middle East.) One might posit, perhaps, that this film was intended as Cameron's belated apology for Aliens (1986), a film that appeared to glorify all-out war against beings that didn't look like you — which might explain why he summoned Sigourney Weaver, the chief alien-killer in that film, to here play Dr. Grace Augustine (whose very name announces graciousness and nobility), a compassionate scientist who opposes military action against the aliens on this world.

As another similarity, Le Guin's story, like Avatar, is moralistic about not only the oppression of native peoples, but thoughtless destruction of the environment as well. In this case, the violent elimination of the aliens on Pandora is primarily motivated by a desire to gain access to rich deposits of a valuable gravity-defying metal (and hey, if you want to demonstrate your complete contempt for scientific plausibility, you might as well call this impossible, McGuffin-like substance "unobtainium"). We are told that in the twenty-second century, humans have already despoiled their own planet — "there is no green there" because "they killed their mother" — and Earth is later described as a "dying world." The hoped-for happy ending to Avatar is that the human race might be stopped before they can utterly ruin a second planet. If these environmental concerns seem more contemporary than condemnations of the Vietnam War, they are ultimately just as clichéd, and the best commentary on the merits of this theme is provided by Cameron himself: when the alien-inhabiting Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is first being instructed by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the wise ways of her people so as to earn acceptance into her tribe, he responds to one of her lectures by thinking, "I hope this tree-hugger crap isn't on the final." Soon, however, Sully has swallowed all of her tree-hugger crap hook, line, and sinker, and knowing that "the wealth of the world is all around us," and that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things," Sully is properly indignant that the human settlers on Pandora would strive to destroy the Na'vi's sacred tree to do some mining, and he joins his adopted people in resisting their efforts.

If these stale sentiments do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them. What is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?

Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear — because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.

A related irony is that the philosophy being espoused in this movie — give up your scientific devices, simplify your lifestyle, find happiness in everything that is natural — was once epitomized in the phrase, "Small is beautiful." Yet in Avatar, more often than not, large is beautiful. As if convinced that audiences would only feel they were getting their money's worth if everything was big, big, big, Cameron has focused his creative energies on one enormous construct after another: huge warplanes, towering fighting suits, twelve-foot-high aliens, monstrous trees, dinosaur wannabes, an immense waterfall, huge floating mountains . . . . After a while, your mind becomes numb, these objects no longer impress, and you long for more of the aforementioned little touches of the outré that were observed earlier in the film. Frankly, Cameron should have spent more time on rainplant and flitteries instead of flying tanks and thundering triceratops. (Yet this tendency toward gigantism may also be a subconscious byproduct of undertaking to make an incredibly expensive film that surely represents one of the most mammoth projects in the history of cinema; indeed, so many people contributed to this production that, for the first time I can recall, the closing credits did not place every name on its own line, but crammed related names together into paragraphs. Clearly, it would have taken much too long to list them all in the usual fashion.)

If there is a theme in Avatar which is not entirely threadbare, it lies in the notion that it will someday not only be possible, but even desirable, to give up one's natural identity and assume an artificial identity. Traditional narratives often argue that people should accept who they really are and should not try to be something they are not, as illustrated by stories like the Twilight Zone episode "The Trade-Ins" (1962) and the film Seconds (1966). But here, Jake Sully comes to reject his real life as a partially paralyzed soldier and embraces a new unreal existence as an athletic alien: mentally returning from one experience in the forest to his human base, he says that "Everything is backwards now. Outside is the real world; back here is the dream." Crafting and inhabiting a dream world, then, is being celebrated, not chastised. It might have been more interesting if Avatar had posited that all of the Na'vi, not just a few agents like Jake Sully, were originally created by human scientists as convenient devices to explore a hostile alien world, although they soon went entirely native and were inspired by the new environment to develop their own distinctive culture and beliefs; this would have made the entire race the embodiment of a human dream and might have made the unlikely pleasures of the Pandorans' lives, and their evident mimicking of the practices of pre-technological humans, a bit more palatable.

In addition, the process of profitably reinventing oneself undoubtedly had personal relevance to James Cameron, since Avatar represents his return to feature film directing after a twelve-year hiatus, and there is evidence that he regarded the task as his own rebirth as a new kind of film director. Prior to being formally accepted as a member of the tribe, Jake comments that "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People." I wasn't keeping track of every single date in the small print at the bottom of Jake's video reports, but I believe that Jake's initiation and second "birthday" was exactly, or almost exactly, the two-hundredth anniversary of Cameron's own birthdate of August 16, 1954. And while I would not be enthusiastic about seeing another film like Avatar, Cameron's record as a director indicates that he rarely chooses to repeat himself, and he may be capable of next producing a film that would blend the technological breakthroughs of this one with a more original and meaningful story — that is, if Avatar is successful enough to earn him another 500 million dollars to play with.

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 recent books include 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 -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by James Cameron

Written by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonzo, and Dileep Rao

Official Website: Avatar Official Movie Website

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of Civilization and Its Discontents:
A Review of The Road

by Gary Westfahl

Privy to no inside information, I cannot be sure why John Hillcoat's The Road, originally scheduled for release in December, 2008, has been repeatedly held back before finally appearing in late November, 2009 (just in time to ruin the Westfahl family Thanksgiving); certainly, there is no evidence of last-minute rewrites or hastily added scenes in a film that is, for the most part, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But one factor may have been current events: at a time when the world seemed on the brink of an economic meltdown, executives may have reasoned, filmgoers might not have been in the mood for a depressing vision of the total collapse of global civilization in the near future. Now that the economic news is finally getting a little better, perhaps the producers thought audiences would be more willing to endure two hours of artistically crafted gloom and doom.

Be that as it may, it remains the case that, whether you are feeling poor or prosperous, The Road is a film that stretches the definition of "entertainment": in a world devastated by an unspecified catastrophe, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McGhee) wander through a bleak, lifeless environment desperately searching for food, like other scattered survivors, and the one thing separating the "good guys" from the "bad guys," it seems, is that the good guys are unwilling to resort to cannibalism. The only glimpses of bright color come in the Mortensen character's vivid dreams of a happier past, and there is one — precisely one — line in the film that will provoke laughter (strategically occurring during the film's modestly uplifting concluding scene). Everything else is grim: since no food is available, everyone must constantly wander in search of food and thus become homeless people, so the Mortensen character carries his and his son's belongings in the iconic device of the homeless, a shopping cart; they walk past money and jewelry lying on the ground since such things have no value in a world without food; and with gasoline no longer available, abandoned cars are nothing more than convenient shelters on cold and rainy nights. And this may be another reason why this film was originally planned, and ended up, as an end-of-the-year release: to lure people to a film that so conspicuously fails to match conventional expectations of what audiences like, the most viable strategy may be to launch it during awards season and hope that it garners, say, a few Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations to feature in advertisements.

Readers and filmgoers familiar with science fiction, of course, have visited post-holocaust societies many times in the past, and they will be intrigued by the ways in which this film, and the novel it is based upon, are in dialogue with previous depictions of future worlds driven back to primitivism. Oddly enough, though, the first science fiction film that The Road brought to my mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), obviously not part of the post-holocaust subgenre. But its opening scenes also depicted thin, hungry representatives of humanity whose lives are a constant struggle to find enough food and avoid deadly predators. What saved Moon-Watcher and his tribe from threatened extinction was an alien monolith that taught them how to use tools that could kill animals (and would subsequently help them plant crops) to provide ample food, a boon emphasized in the film's numerous later scenes of people eating healthy meals. Their civilization may have many sources of discontentment, as Sigmund Freud noted, but widespread hunger isn't one of them. What has ruined the lives of the film's father and son is that, in a world without animals or plants, their ability to use tools is no longer helpful in obtaining food — except on rare occasions when a shovel can smash the lock to an underground chamber that might contain an unlooted cache of canned goods to temporarily stave off starvation. Both films, then, share a central point: the basis of human civilization is simply having sufficient food to eat, and when there isn't enough food, a civilization can't be built or maintained. One telling image in the film is the piano, a traditional icon of a frontier becoming civilized in American westerns: in the flashbacks showing the Mortensen character and his late wife (Charlize Theron), who committed suicide rather than carry on the struggle for survival, we see them playing a piano in their house, and the wife is described as an excellent player. Later, while rummaging through yet another house in search of food, the man lifts up a cloth and finds a piano; he stares at it, plays a few measures, and then covers it up again and walks away. Clearly, he is now living in a world that has no place for pianos (which may be why it is also a world where his music-loving wife could no longer bear to keep living).

Other science fiction stories about post-holocaust societies may include similar remnants of a happier, more civilized past — Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "The Portable Phonograph" (1941) also uses music, recorded on a vinyl disk, to represent the beauties that humanity had lost — but reminders of yesterday typically evoke other emotions as well: regret about the folly that drove people to destroy everything they had built, anger at the specific persons responsible for the disaster, and a determination to begin the process of reconstructing their vanished technological society. These stories manifest a desire, in other words, to impose a narrative of progress onto a narrative of apparent regression: mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and humanity now can again start moving forward toward a glorious future. McCarthy's novel, and this film, have no intimations of this kind. McCarthy refuses to say anything at all about what caused his world to fall apart; the film includes scenes of ongoing earthquakes and firestorms vaguely suggesting that it might have been a purely natural disaster but otherwise is also silent about exactly what happened. Thus, there are no fools or villains to condemn for humanity's sufferings who would logically inspire the hope that wiser, better people could do better in the future. There is in addition no suggestion that anybody is planning, or dreaming about, a restoration of civilization; the Mortensen character abandons the piano and throws away a picture of his wife and his wedding ring, essentially rejecting his and humanity's history as irrelevant to his current situation. When he says to his son, born after the catastrophe, that "You think I come from another world," he also seems to acknowledge that it is a world he can never return to.

The Road might be said, then, to recall George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), a classic novel wherein most of humanity is wiped out and the survivors first prove unable, and eventually unwilling, to rebuild their vanished civilization. Yet Stewart's hero Ish is at least able to gradually assemble a community of like-minded people that evolves into a happy tribe, living off a still-verdant land using primitive tools like a bow and arrow. In contrast, the Mortensen character resolutely refuses to expand his two-person team. A telling moment comes when he and his son encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) who clearly represents a good-hearted soul and a third set of eyes and hands that might have proved useful to the pair of travelers; but instead of inviting him to join their family, the father grudgingly lets him share one meal, at the insistence of his son, and then sends him on his way, probably to die. Thus, the most heartening aspect of the film's conclusion may be that we encounter another small family which is, unlike the father, more than willing to take in additional members and will perhaps continue expanding to become a community like Ish's.

The question then becomes: why is the Mortensen character so unrelentingly hostile to people like the old man and, later, a principled thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who might have become his helpful companions? One answer would be the issue of severe deprivation, which not only eliminates civilization but may even impel people to resist bonding with others as they fight to keep themselves alive. Ish, after all, found himself in a bountiful world where he never had to miss a meal and hence had no reason to feel competitive when encountering others. So, to explain why the other family was more open to strangers, one might seize upon the film's one sign of a coming revival of life, even though it is not a flourishing green plant (like the one which signaled Earth's rebirth in Wall▪E [review here]) or a soaring eagle, but rather a tiny beetle that flies from an empty tin can up into the sky. True, one might describe this image as a deliberately feeble and far from inspirational indication that the environment might be recovering from disaster, but it does offer modest hope that conditions may be changing so as to again allow people to stop fearing and fighting others and start befriending them.

But there is another possible explanation, one which may have been on the minds of the people who voted to give McCarthy's novel the Pulitzer Prize. Arguably, the Mortensen character is simply acting in the way that increasing numbers of people in contemporary Western society are acting: while perhaps fiercely protective of family members and close friends, they otherwise live solitary and cloistered lives, "cocooning" by themselves and regarding strangers with indifference or hostility. They certainly aren't starving, but they are, one could say, emotionally deprived. Following this line of thinking, then, the dreary, miserable world that the Mortensen character finds himself in is a metaphor for the sad, empty lives that isolated individuals in our own world are now experiencing; and his tragic fate represents a warning to such people that they need to change their ways and start behaving more like the adults in the other family who survive.

The only problem with these interpretations of the story is that all the communities that we do observe in this film are evil: a roving band of gun-toting looters, another band that hunts down and captures a fleeing woman, and a house filled with cannibals and their intended victims. Could it be, then, that the film is actually arguing that staying isolated is beneficial while forming communities is dangerous? If the Mortensen character had indeed invited others to join his little group, would they all have ended up bonding with each other by becoming well-fed cannibals? Are audiences, like the son is initially, supposed to be suspicious of the motives of that other family and see their apparent benevolence as nothing more than a flimsy disguise for their sinister plans? Such ideas seem counterintuitive, to say the least, but it appears possible to argue that, according to the visible logic of this film, individuals or small groups can generally remain good (although they may, like the protagonist, feel compelled to do cruel things in order to survive), whereas larger organizations invariably become wicked, which would make the Mortensen character a role model, not a cautionary tale.

It is also possible, admittedly, to downplay its posited broad arguments about civilization and human behavior and maintain that The Road is a simple story about a father's overpowering love for a son, which compels him to continue his journey and do everything he can to keep his son alive in a world where he would otherwise, like his late wife, prefer to die. However, while this theme is manifestly central to McCarthy's novel, it is the aspect of the film that I find least persuasive, which might account for the fact that, as my wife noted, the whole story is somehow less emotionally involving than one would expect. Despite a remarkable performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son is not really a believable character; as anyone who has spent time with boys will attest, he is too patient, too stoic, too gosh-darn good to be true. When his father describes him as an "angel" and a "god," it signals that the character is more a symbol of all the values that the father wishes to cling to against all odds than a living, breathing person. Indeed, while I would never say this about the novel, it is possible to imagine the film concluding with a plot twist not unlike those in The Other (1972) or Fight Club (1999), with the boy revealed to be nothing but an illusion created by the father as a device to motivate him to maintain his struggle for survival.

In stark contrast to all of the portentous ideas that might emerge from pondering The Road, there are subtle signs that someone involved in the making of this film had a strange sense of humor, although the references are of a nature that will not immediately amuse filmgoers and thus spoil the film's mood; rather, one has to remember and think about them. Consider: soon after the son gets his father to affirm that they are indeed the "good guys" who are "carrying the fire" of civilized ethics, the son blows out a small torch they were using for illumination, putting out the fire. At one point, for no particular reason, the father takes his son to the house where he grew up and starts pointing out where his family put the Christmas tree and the Christmas stockings; thus, however marginally, The Road can be considered a Christmas film, befitting its holiday season release, even though it is otherwise the complete antithesis of everything associated with that subgenre. Like the novel, the film is deliberately vague about precisely where in America the man and son are traveling south, but in one scene the father shows his son a fragment of a map to indicate their progress toward the coast, and we see that they are approaching a coastal city named Outland. Because I can locate no evidence that such a coastal city actually exists, this may be a reference to Berkeley Breathed's sardonic comic strip about small-town America, Outland (1989-1995), to the 1981 film Outland (a version of High Noon in outer space featuring a lonely hero surrounded by villains), or to the World of Warcraft game's "extradimensional realm" Outland, constructed out of the shattered remains of an orc planet. And buried within the typically interminable credits is a line crediting the film's "Cranes" to one "Ichabod Crane"; and since no one of that name can be found in the Internet Movie Database, this must be a reference to the protagonist of Washington Irving's 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," another solitary traveler beset by evil forces.

Overall, in both large and small ways, The Road may not be an enjoyable film to watch — it will be quite a while before I will want to see it again — but it is a very pleasurable film to talk about and think about after you have watched it. In the milieu of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, then, it definitely represents the road less traveled.

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Please note: a correspondent has pointed out that the credit for "Ichabod Crane" probably actually refers to a company, Ichabod Crane, Inc., which provides films with equipment. — Gary Westfahl

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 recent books include 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 -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac Mccarthy

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McGhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Charlize Theron

Official Website: The Road - In Theaters November 25

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Friday, October 2, 2009

In the Midst of Pandemonium, Profundity?: A Review of Pandorum

by Gary Westfahl

If I were posting film reviews on Twitter, instead of Locus Online, I might limit my review of Pandorum to "It's I Am Legend Meets Alien!" and stay comfortably within the 140-character limit. All director Christian Alvart and writer Travis Milloy have done, one can easily argue on the basis of their final product, is to take the basic story line of I Am Legend (2007) (review here) — a few genuine humans struggle to stay alive while battling hordes of mindlessly homicidal, pale-skinned mutants — and transplanted it from the streets of a deserted New York City to the dark, dimly-lit corridors of a large spaceship — making their film suitable entertainment for filmgoers in search of another cinematic thrill ride, but a disappointment to those who would prefer a thought-provoking idea to an adrenalin rush. And it's all sort of a shame, since it transpires that lurking underneath this seemingly unending humans-versus-monsters slugfest is a reasonably interesting future history of the human race, and one suspects that Alvart and Milloy originally envisioned a film that would be slightly more cerebral — more like Sunshine (2007) or Moon (20090 (reviews here and here), perhaps, than an action-packed Will Smith spectacular. Fortunately, despite the hypothesized revisions in the screenplay to boost the body count in hopes of maximizing ticket sales, the fossilized remains of a different film remain visible.

That much of this film is a homage to — or ripoff of — I Am Legend seems indisputable, given that its mutants are virtually identical to their predecessors in their appearance and behavior; indeed, if they haven't already been paid off, the producers of I Am Legend could plausibly sue the makers of Pandorum — even the way the mutants set booby traps to ensnare humans and make them hang upside down seems transparently stolen from Smith's epic. As for other influences on this film, many will think of Event Horizon (1997), another horror film set in a spaceship which was uncoincidentally directed by the producer of Pandorum, Paul W. S. Anderson, but since he was also responsible for the lame Alien vs. Predator (2004), I suspect that Ridley Scott's masterpiece was more on his mind while supervising this particular project.

In defense of the notion that this film departed from its original design, one can readily detect the outlines of a film that omitted those derivative mutants (officially named the "Hunters" in the closing credits) and instead generated drama exclusively from the interpersonal conflicts of interstellar crewmates and the dangers of madness induced by space travel. After all, the title of the film is another of science fiction's made-up terms for the condition of "space madness" — hurriedly explained as some sort of bureaucratic acronym — and the screenplay retains dialogue suggesting that such insanity, not mutated monsters, represents the major menace awaiting long-distance space voyagers.

And Pandorum involves a truly long journey through space, featuring what science fiction readers would term a "generation starship." Some two centuries in the future, Earth is threatened by massive overpopulation and a deteriorating environment — one flashback reveals that humans at the time had to wear plastic facemasks in order to survive outdoors — so people are heartened by the discovery of an earthlike planet, Tanis, in another solar system. A huge ship, the Elysium, is constructed to take 16,000 people on a 223-year voyage to colonize Tanis (clearly, this future world has not mastered faster-than-light travel), though passengers spend most of their time in suspended animation — "extended hypersleep" — leaving only a small number of crewmates to be awake during rotating shifts (presumably, so that they can avoid succumbing to Pandorum). One problem is that reawakening crewpeople take a long time to regain their memories — so that when Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) wake up at the beginning of the film, it takes them a while to remember the information they need to figure out exactly why the ship isn't running the way it is supposed to; another problem is that a few crewmen have been violating protocol and staying awake too long, causing them to go insane. On the face of it, these seem like reasonably sensible premises that could lead to a generally palatable film in which Bower and Payton explore the ship, gradually learn why it appears to be out of control and running out of power, and finally succeed in restoring the ship to normal functioning and allowing everyone on board to complete their important mission.

But then there are those constantly attacking mutants, which simply don't make any sense at all. The official explanation is that the colonists were given some sort of special gene or treatment which would allow their bodies to adapt to the different conditions on Tanis, but in some people it somehow malfunctioned and instead made them adapt to the different conditions on the Elysium. However, to say the very least, it seems extraordinarily unclear why losing one's intelligence and becoming a feral cannibal would represent the ideal biological adaptation to life on board a starship. In any event, we have been told repeatedly that Tanis is an earthlike planet, meaning that no sort of special adaptation would be needed, and without saying too much about the movie's final twists, you have probably already deduced that its happy ending involves the main characters reaching the surface of Tanis and finding it a habitable home, with absolutely no physiological changes required. This serves as yet another indication that the mutants represent an inorganic, forced addition to the original story — recalling the egregiously incongruous "Mutant" belatedly inserted into This Island Earth (1954) — but at least that creature only appeared in a few scenes. In this case, the egregiously incongruous additions virtually dominate the entire film, reducing all other events to the status of subplots.

In order to appreciate Pandorum, then, one must ignore those silly mutants and instead focus solely on the shorter, better film they are viciously struggling to conceal. The film, of course, is yet another meditation on the folly of damaging the delicate environment of our home planet, and the potential need for human beings to seek salvation by traveling into outer space — points also made in worthwhile films with similar back stories like Titan A.E. (2000) and Wall·E (2008) (review here). Believe it or not, the film also shares a theme with the works of Octavia E. Butler — that humans do what they must do in order to survive, and one should not judge them for what they might do — and there are trite homilies about the importance of people learning to work together, such as Bower's eloquent "A little fucking solidarity goes a long way."

What is most provocative about this film, though, is what appears to be its curiously old-fashioned argument about the human habitation of outer space. In Pandorum, as in its cinematic precursors, space is portrayed as a dangerous and evil place, a realm of monsters and madness; space travel, while sometimes necessary, is therefore something to endure rather than something to enjoy. The designers of the Elysium saw fit to ensure that the vast majority of its passengers would spend the vast majority of their time asleep, while the only people awake would be small rotating crews of military personnel who are presumably hardy enough to actually stand living in space.

But there are two objections to make to the way this film seems to characterize space travel. In the first place, the Elysium is not a tiny spacecraft with a handful of crewmembers, as was the case in Alien and Event Horizon, but an immense space ark filled with 16,000 people. Science fiction writers have long realized that when we construct such vast habitations, it would be both possible, and desirable, to make the interiors of the vehicle resemble a park more than a prison. Why did the builders of Elysium make absolutely no effort to fashion a vessel with more pleasant environments, instead of a Nostromo writ large consisting of nothing but unadorned metallic walls, sterile corridors, and visible machinery? Did anyone ever theorize that space travelers regularly go insane in part because their quarters are so relentlessly and unnecessarily grim? Apparently, it never occurred to anyone in this future world that a large spaceship, properly equipped, might serve as a reasonably attractive second home for a human race facing the crisis of a dying planet — which was precisely the rescue plan carried out in Wall·E; instead, they believe the only answer is to transport humans to the only other earthlike planet available, even though it is many light-years away.

Mentioning Wall·E brings up another curious omission in the thinking of the people who planned this mission: recognizing the complexities and innumerable perils of space travel, both science fiction writers and NASA personnel have understood that astronauts will require constant assistance from advanced computers, typically envisioned in future spaceships as ambulatory robots or ubiquitous voices with traces of a human personality. In Pandorum, while characters are observed punching buttons and staring at screens that are presumably connected to computers of some sort, there are no signs of an advanced computer intelligence continually monitoring the entire ship, either because none was installed in the ship or because it has been completely disabled due to the ship's various issues — but both scenarios suggest a design flaw. Granted, Wall·E and other films point out that it is dangerous to become overly reliant on such computerized colleagues, but Pandorum seems to illustrate the opposite problem of underutilizing computers, as the human astronauts here are forced to overcome their problems entirely on their own.

Thus, even overlooking those nasty mutants, one can maintain that the makers of Pandorum are falsely portraying outer space as an horrific experience by failing to acknowledge two relatively recent conclusions about space travel: that the environments within spaceships will not have to be drab and confining, and that the difficulties of surviving in space will always be mitigated by helpful computer companions. Instead, either because they found it made for better entertainment or because they really didn't know any better, they have returned to the earlier, naïve vision of space travel observed in films of the 1950s like, say, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), arguably the granddaddy of all space horror films.

But there is another explanation for these apparent lapses, one which may be giving Alvart and Milloy much more credit than they deserve, but it remains a possibility: the filmmakers may be deliberately presenting an inaccurate picture of space travel in order to provide commentary on people's stubbornly enduring misconceptions about what life in space will actually be like. Yes, some will immediately say that I am wildly overanalyzing one of this week's popcorn films, and I generally agree that critics should not attempt to excuse flaws in a work by arguing that the wise author was being ironic by intentionally making flaws. Still, in this case there is one aspect of the film which provides powerful support for this seemingly outlandish theory. Unfortunately, if I am to follow the implicit code of reviewing and avoid "spoilers" (which I have been endeavoring to do of late), I am unable to discuss it.

Perhaps, though, I can complete the thought and avoid an outright violation of protocol by discussing a hypothetical case. Suppose that, in a film about space travelers, it turned out that they were not really in outer space at all. Suppose that it transpired that, at any time during that film, the characters could have solved all their grievous problems simply by pressing a few buttons. Such a film, then, would not really be about the dangers of space travel; rather, it would be a film about the dangers of succumbing to your own unexamined preconceptions. As one possibility, such a film might turn out to be a reversal of the scenario of Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" (1941) and other similar stories — not people in space who falsely believe they are inhabiting a world, but people living on a world who falsely believe they are in outer space.

Such a film might turn out to be much more interesting than a film about people who need to kill a bunch of mutants before the mutants kill them. And it would be a tragedy — hypothetically — if film producers, given the opportunity to oversee such a film, instead insisted that the screenplay had to be reshaped in order to foreground a much less interesting story.

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 Christian Alvart

Written by Travis Milloy and Christian Albart (story), Travis Milloy (screenplay)

Starring Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reedus, and André Hennicke

Official Website: PANDORUM - Now In Theaters


Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Glimpse of the Future: A First Look at FlashForward

by Gary Westfahl

If nothing else, watching "No More Good Days," the first episode of the new ABC television series FlashForward, suggests why many people who are devoted to science fiction literature and film pay little attention to science fiction television; for even more so than films, television regularly displays a visceral aversion to all aspects of the genre that make it uniquely interesting.

Series creators and producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer did begin promisingly by purchasing the rights to a novel by a noteworthy science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward (1999); however, when the new paperback edition of the book says only that it was the "Inspiration for the Hit ABC TV series," one realizes immediately that the series will not be a faithful adaptation. True, the series employs the basic premise of the novel: everyone on Earth blacks out for about two minutes and has visions of their futures. And the experiences of certain characters in the novel are replicated: a woman sees herself with a man other than her current partner; a widely separated man and woman have the same vision of the two of them together; and one man sees nothing at all, leading to the grim conclusion that he must be dead in the future.

However, science fiction stories often focus on the drama of investigating mysterious phenomena in the universe, and accordingly employ scientists as protagonists — in the case of Flashforward (the book), physicist Lloyd Simcoe, colleague Theo Procopides, and Simcoe's fiancée, engineer Michiko Kumora, who work at CERN's Large Hadron Collider and immediately deduce that its high-energy experiment aimed at detecting the Higgs boson somehow must have caused the blackouts and the visions. But one can readily imagine television executives blanching at such a scenario: "A hit television series about scientists? Who live in Switzerland? Give me a break!" Instead, Brannon and Goyer prudently replaced Simcoe, Procopides, and Kumora with two FBI agents based in Los Angeles, Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) and Demitri Noh (John Cho), who are assigned to investigate the FlashForward, and Benford's wife Olivia (Sonya Wagner), a beautiful surgeon who works at a local hospital. Thus, if the obvious resonances with Lost were not sufficiently persuasive, producers could endeavor to sell the series by exclaiming, "It's 24 Meets Grey's Anatomy!" And focusing a series on the conflict between humans and a cosmos reluctant to yield its secrets would never do; instead, the conflict must be between good guys and bad guys. Hence, while in the novel all video and audio records of what occurred during the blackouts are blank, the series allows one character to survey all such records and find a video of a single man walking around a baseball stadium during the blackout — a man immediately labeled "Suspect Zero" who creates the exciting possibility that the FlashForward was all some sort of strange terrorist plot. (Did I mention 24?) And don't hold your breath waiting for any intriguing scientific ideas regarding what might have caused the phenomenon; for while this episode does briefly mention NASA investigating "solar flares" and other possible factors, the scientific explanation most emphatically presented in the episode is that it was all the work of God.

One might also wonder why the visions in the novel, which were of life twenty or so years in the future, were replaced in the series by visions of life only six months in the future. Well, for one thing, the change lays the groundwork for a thrilling first-season finale in which characters advance to the moment of their visions and finally discover if they were accurate or not (and, if the series is renewed, to presumably experience, as in the novel, some sort of second FlashForward). In addition, the characters in the novel reported observing some new household technologies and learning about new political developments, which might be too disconcerting for a mass audience, so having visions that are only six months ahead allowed producers to present images of a future that is identical to the present — precisely the sort of future that most people prefer to envision.

Still, like the visions experienced by these characters, a first episode of a series provides only a fleeting glimpse into its future; no one watching "The Man Trap," the first aired episode of Star Trek, could have predicted that the series would become an enduring monument in popular culture, and there are reasons to hope that FlashForward might eventually offer viewers some "good days" — or at least, some better days than this one. David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga have track records in writing and producing science fiction film and television which suggest that they are capable of rewarding work in the genre, and the first episode includes characters seen only briefly who will be more fully developed in later episodes and may take the series in more interesting directions than ongoing efforts to track down the evil terrorists who might be responsible for the FlashForward. Suffice it to say that I'm willing to give this series a second look, which is more than I would say about most of the television series I've encountered in recent years.

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.

"No More Good Days." FlashForward. New York: ABC-TV, September 24, 2009.

Series created and produced by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, "inspired" by the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

Episode directed by David S. Goyer

Episode written by David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga

Series starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Wagner, Zachary Kingston, Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Peyton List, Brian O'Byrne, Christine Woods, Courtney B. Vance, and Bryce Robinson

Official Website: - FlashForward


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review 9

Both: Given the visuals and origin of 9, we had high hopes for this. High enough that we felt it wise to dial those expectations down several notches before seeing it, lest we be disappointed.

We didn't dial them down far enough.

Lawrence Person: I've been looking forward to this movie for two years. As for why, before I can talk about 9 the feature film, I have to talk about 9 the short film.

The original short film is a real masterpiece. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, it told, in non-linear fashion and without words, the story of a horrible mechanical thing hunting small canvas bag people and stealing their souls, and the efforts of the titular protagonist to fight it. It was clever, original, beautiful to look at, utterly gripping, filled with pathos, terror, wonder, and the sense of a fascinating back-story beyond the boundaries of the film's frame. It was a worthy nominee for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and after seeing it, Tim Burton gave creator/animator/writer/director Shane Acker the go-ahead to turn the short into the feature film.

Parts of 9 the feature film retain the short film's virtues, but much of the rest falls woefully short of the magic of the original.

Howard Waldrop: This reminds me of nothing so much as Hugh Harmen's Academy Award-nominated 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth, as done by a creepy stop-motion iconoclast like Ladislaw Starewicz or Jan Svankmajer. (Warning: 3 seconds of full frontal animated clay nudity in that link.)

The surviving intelligences of a machine-human war seem to be sewn together with burlap 'toe sacks, and have been made in a series. The film is about all of them and their world, but mostly concerns 9.

The CGI is excellent. I was stuck in a D-Box seat; even that didn't detract from the movie. (It starts out quietly, but soon there are enough sounds and explosions to please the worst gamer who ever was or ever could be.)

LP: The look of the film is truly gorgeous, and hats off to Acker and the CGI team at Focus Films (or their subcontractors). If the jury-rigged, burnished, Steampunk-by-way-of-World War II look of the film appeals to you, it might very well be worth seeing merely on that basis alone. In this it's a lot like MirrorMask: the visuals are much more interesting and original than the plot. But anyone working in visual arts or computer animation will get more than their money's worth out of the ticket price.

And the first ten minutes of the films are very effective, with our tiny protagonist waking up in a half-destroyed house with no memory, no voice, and no idea what's going on.

HW: 9, by (his?) arrival, upsets the status quo (which seems to be Run and Hide). He first meets 2, then ends up with 1, the leader of the group. There's also a Mord the Executioner equivalent (8), who looks like a Golem, or burlap version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man.

LP: They live in an abandoned cathedral over which 1 rules in his pope hat and robe with all the subtlety of Jonathan Edwards and none of his better lines. There's also what appears to be a World War II-era bomber (possibly a B-24) from the final war against the machines crashed into the cathedral, which tells you very quickly that 9's world is not our own. (That, and the alchemical trappings, make it very clear that this is A Fable and not science fiction. And speaking of fables, there's an explicit shout-out to The Wizard of Oz.)

HW: Because 9 is inquisitive and naïve, things begin to go very badly very quickly. We meet the rest of the group while their world starts falling apart. Big problem: A dormant factory once used to manufacture war machines comes back on line: soon everywhere is covered with bio-mechanical versions of raptors, spiders and less-classified things. Some of them are right out of Bosch and Breughel (and, like Bosch, the director has a Thing for knives...).

LP: Some of the monsters are very imaginative. The first one we meet (a mecho-skeletal horror known only as "The Beast"), is the one from the short film, and is every bit as menacing here, and possibly even more so in its reborn form as a sort of canvas hypnoworm with some truly evil adaptive camouflage . But beyond The Beast, most of the monsters here seem to owe some degree of debt to machine intelligences in The Matrix movies, right down to the multiple glowing red eyes.

HW: There's some pretty exciting stuff here; it's repeated often enough you want something else to happen. Eventually, it does.

LP: The struggles between the 9's brethren and their mechanical foes start out quite gripping (especially given how tiny our heroes are; all of them easily fit inside a single army helmet), but quickly grow repetitive. As do the circular arguments between 1 and 9.

HW: I wasn't bored; I was somewhat let down by the last ten minutes, a sort of feel-better-about-things-coda, like the last scenes of a John Ford cavalry movie where all the dead soldiers ride across the sky...

LP: The worst thing about the film is the dialog, which falls utterly flat in almost every scene. This is something of a shock, since screenplay writer Pamela Pettler did a much better job in both Corpse Bride and Monster House.

Even more surprising is the somewhat lackluster voice acting in many of the scenes, especially given the quality of actors assembled here. Jennifer Connelly has fun (and the best lines) in her role, and Martin Landau and John C. Reilly bring their diminutive characters to life. But Elijah Wood and Christopher Plummer are allowed to get away with generally unsubtle, one-note performances, and I think Acker has to take the blame here, as both have done much better. (One of the many similarities with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another labor-of-love feature debut by an animator-turned-director.)

HW: Good thing I wasn't 8 years old when I saw this. I would think it was one of the best movies ever made and would be looking for more just like it. Because I'm all grown up, I know better.

LP: This is another film I really wanted to be great, or at least very good, and it just turned out OK. It's short and reasonably entertaining, but far less original and emotionally involving than I had hoped. Howard's right: This is a great movie for the 8-12 year old set, much like Monster House, but like that film, the menace and violence may be too intense for younger viewers. (And unlike Monster House, it wasn't marketed as a YA film.) Teenagers may enjoy it too, but many adult viewers are likely to find that the non-visual aspects have a ho-hum, by-the-numbers quality to them. You've seen this plot too many times before. And the ending is more than a little sappy. (Though not as irritating as The Last Mimzy.)

If you haven't already seen the short film, you might want to see the feature film first, because just about everything good about the feature film is contained in the short film, with none of the irritations. (But either way, you should see the short film; it's still great.)

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 Shane Acker

Written by Pamela Pettler (script) and Shane Acker (story)

Starring the voice talent of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover , Jennifer Connelly, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson

Official Website: 9 | Film Overview

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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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