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Actors and performances aren’t frequently covered here because for a long time science-fiction wasn’t an actor’s genre. In recent years however, genre fare has expanded its bounds (or actors have, as you might see it), and it’s always been inclusive to the weird that so often breeds interesting performances. I have no interest in the Academy Award-garnering “I have a disease, here’s my family,” one-man show performances that are typically seen as top in the industry. I want something out of an actor that grabs me or worries me, that makes me think about the character, not the artist’s craft.

These particular performances stand out because the characters they depict experience a great deal of physical pain or bound with endless energy — certainly an endurance test for any performer, despite all the breaks between takes and trailers and stuff. I think the reality of acting dawned on me recently when in an interview Mary Elizabeth Winstead described her experience shooting The Thing as breath-taking in the sense that she was hyperventilating 24-hours a day to act frightened. She was out of breath and light-headed so much, but in the movie it seems like a pretty standard horror role.

Note that the following list isn’t ranking how good I think the performances are, it’s based entirely on… well I guess the blob of text following the number’ll explain it.

10. Ralph Fiennes, Spider

This isn’t a case of bounding off the walls like #2 on this list — it’s a smaller approach. David Cronenberg’s Spider is an adaptation of a book about a mentally unstable British fellow who attempts to piece together a key moment from his past, and suffers the consequences when the memories blur over into the present. This may sound exactly what I was bitching about earlier, but this is a character piece unlike any other — there is almost no dialogue. Right around the level of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I’d say. There are no soaring soliloquies or shout-fests with fed-up loved ones — Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) interacts with very few people, and when he does, it’s pretty uncomfortable.

He shakes and mumbles to himself, stalks forward with his shoulders slumped. Fiennes has really done it all, whether he’s the hero or the Nazi villain, or my favorite, the sleazy drugdealer from Strange Days, Lenny Nero. In Spider, he joins a good rank in David Cronenberg’s line of male leads (all of them with the exception of Rabid have featured male men characters, though I’m sure that one had a guy hero), another one of which is coming up soon…

9. Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad

This is one of my favorites. On the show, Jesse to me is the interesting character. Walt, played by three-time-in-a-row-Emmy-award-winning Bryan Cranston, is great, but his change is gradual, whereas Jesse is always on the rocks or at the bottom or coming back. He’s also a kid, which is something we must remind ourselves. To help, he uses foul language and says things like “Yo” and “Bitch” as catchphrases; he might jump bad — which is the term I believe they were going for with that title — but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, a victim of his past, of mistakes that ripple out to the end of one’s life.

Though he won the Emmy for Season 3, I think Season 2 was his finest moment — his involvement with Jane, an emotionally strong arc that makes you wonder why the original story had Jesse die at the end of Season 1. His ‘chemistry’ with Walt is just perfect. He’s the reason the premise, for me anyway, works. It’d be great as a show about a seemingly ordinary guy who unlocks the monster inside — but we already have Dexter, and unfortunately, Dexter (1-5) is the better show. In Breaking Bad, things are slightly different, as Walt and Jesse bicker and argue and joke around, and their relationship as student/teacher isn’t forgotten by the writers, and is really compelling to me for some reason.

Aaron Paul’s performance is one of constant exhaustion. Jesse is always running on empty, but he’s got a job to do. In the early days he was driven by money, because while Walt destroyed his life, he couldn’t say no to all that cash he was raking in and then losing. Nowadays (I’m halfway through Season 4) he’s in it because he has to be, and because he couldn’t leave his partner. He couldn’t — and he doesn’t want to.

8. Clive Owen, Children of Men

Those goddamn long shots, man. They must be super-endurance tests for actors. As if filming in front of a disorienting, bizarre green screen for a whole third of a movie in Sin City wasn’t bad enough, now he’s gotta throw his body through all sorts of hoops, navigating physical post-apocalyptic landscapes that seem to go on forever. For us, this makes the world seem real, and the action intense. But for the crew? I can’t even imagine. Children of Men is choreographed and shot so well, it’s like a divine invasion hit Cuaron square in the brainular, and he just painted each frame with gold.

Of course, we know that’s not the truth. Everyone involved put their work in, and that includes our lead, the reluctant Theo.

7. Tom Woodruff Jr., from Everything Good and Gooey

The special effects team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. has worked alongside Stan Winston and James Cameron in their prolific careers across almost all of the Alien films (the good and the bad), and very recently with The Thing. They’ve created many of the inventive and effective monsters of the past few decades, and Woodruff Jr. generally gets into the suit.

The physical toll the Robocop suit took on Peter Weller might be blamed on his not returning for a third return in that particular trilogy, but I have a feeling it was other things. Regardless, acting in a heavy rubber suit isn’t as fun as it might look on screen. And acting like a monster? Monsters have the tendency to a) move in otherworldly ways, like the Thing, and b) die horribly, like the Newborn from Alien Resurrection. While they do these things, they sometimes operate in environments thick with fog and goo. Ms. Winstead may talk of hyperventilation during the shoot, but Tom Woodruff Jr. I’m sure had brushes with overheating, even in the deep white of Antarctica…

6. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

One word: Naked Shower Fight.

5. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner

I’m thinking specifically of the ending scene, which I saw on TV a few days ago during Cinemax’s Blade Runner 30th Anniversary, though I thought that was the 25th because I was gonna do something for it on the website. Given the state of things even that seems unlikely but if I missed it anyway…

While watching the climax, after Roy has met his maker and Rick gets an address, I realize how good this movie is and how it gets better with each viewing — and how jacked up Roy is. “Five, six, seven, go to Hell or go to Heaven — *gets hit, smashes into window* — THAT’S THE SPIRIT!” He really goes crazy here in his ‘pursuit’ for Rick, and we see how childlike he becomes. There’s a poigniancy to the madness, and it’s something that the subsequent roles Hauer took on couldn’t fully reproduce.

4. Jason Stathom, Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage

Jesus. The Crank movies are great, and booming with energy. Stathom has become known for driving a car and killing people, but when I close my ears and think “Crank,” the image that always comes to my mind is Jason Stathom running down the street and screaming into the air. These movies really live up to their namesake, and the fact that the second one is actually better than the first speaks to a sense of inventiveness and adventure that Nelvedine/Taylor work in with fiery passion and technical skill.

It’s kind of like the Escape from New York sequels, Escape from LA and Doomsday — they take a ridiculous premise and break it down scene by scene, element by element, making it less a movie and more a loose string of wild, graphic, and original action scenes with all sorts of gimmicks and mayhem. At the center of it all in Crank and Crank 2 is Chev “Fuck you Chelios” Chelios, undoubtedly the most memorable action hero of the 2000s.

3. Sharlto Copley, District 9

There’s something to getting beat up, and then there’s another thing to getting beat up by aliens, robots, PMCs, and warlords in the arid world of Johannesburg. District 9 has it all, and van Wikus goes through it in his painful-looking journey that’d be like if Dr. Brundle went on a mission to save some aliens while being pursued by the private military he used to work with. While his body becomes something that seems to always explode in pus whenever touched, van Wikus is rolling around in the dirt and sand amidst exploding heads.

Sharlto Copley gave it his all in this movie, and we feel his pain without him having to verbalize it. Even when he gets into the robot suit, which is supposed to be fun, there’s a drill noise and he gets hurt by something! This is one hostile world, which gives a lot of weight to the look and feeling of the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace toward a thundering climax*.

2. Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures

It’s small wonder why Winslet blossomed into the superstar actress she is today, for when she was seventeen and a part of a sitcom, she was brilliant in one of Peter Jackson’s most acclaimed films, Heavenly Creatures. Seventeen! She bubbles over with a frenzy of joy and insanity, playing a character with real life connections — a killer — who’s unmistakably a little girl with a troubled mind and misunderstood passions.

She loves the world and all its details so much, though not the one we inhabit. She’s the other half of socially awkward, that of off-putting, where the other character, played by the also brilliant Melanie Lynskey (who, like Kate Winslet, is a beautfiul adult), is inward and quiet. Winslet’s character beams and LOLs, always smiling with that face that looks like it’s about to explode, even when she’s plotting to kill someone…

1. Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy

I don’t think the number one could be anyone else. Mr. Min Sik (Mr. Choi?) never had to naked shower fight, but he did eat a live octopus, fight through an uninterrupted and complex hallway battle, withstand all sorts of torture and transform his appearance radically. The character, Oh Dae Su, becomes a monster, and Min-Sik does this with sweeping power and emotion that culminates in one hell of an ending, where after the Big Reveal, he goes crazy in an intense fight scene, screams for mercy and acts like a dog, and then cuts his tongue out. What a movie, I tell you.

So there you have it. These are the performances I watch out for, and I’ll try to put more of these together for other ‘categories’ of acting later.

*I don’t care how lude this word is. There isn’t much else I can use…


Editing is the unsung hero of film. It’s also the unsung hero of selling film, and I figured to honor that fact by listing off what I feel are the most effective, manipulative, or just downright cool scifi trailers to come along. Sometimes it’s the music, the dialogue over certain images, the action editing, or maybe that it’s just a good movie, as in District 9‘s case–I love these trailers, and I love trailers in general. That’s half the reason why I go to see movies nowadays. Except, they had a trailer for something really weird in front of The Thing (not a movie I went to see for the trailers, just so we’re clear, that movie kicks ass), some teenage comedy…


5. District 9 – Badass

D9 was considered to be a sleeper hit, and word-of-mouth plays a big part of that, which is a good thing. Movies should be rewarded on their standalone merits, rather than merely the merits of their marketing. Of course, this had pretty good marketing, too. I never saw any of the physical stuff, the signs and shit, but I also live nowhere, so never mind. I did however see the trailer, and I’m not one who goes on and just sits there watching trailers (if I did, I’d be lost to the Internet in the lamest cyber-addiction yet), so when I did for this one I was skeptical at best. You better be good…

Boy-O, man. This trailer is good mostly because they had an excellent source to draw from. I bet that all the D9 trailers are good. What a great flick…

4. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Cinematic Trailer

This one gives us a taste of the game’s requisite cyberpunk philosophical tendencies, and segues quick into a tour of the world complete with robot spiders and arms that turn into guns–draws us in, and we haven’t even seen a lick of gameplay. We won’t, and that’s fine because they had my money when they announced this damn game. That’s irrelevant. This trailer, and the Gears of War trailer and the one for Bioshock are analogous to the greater video-game industry’s push toward the big and the cinematic. The movie-like Uncharted 3 just came out and BLEW EVERYBODY’S FUCKING MINDS. I’ll never play it; Uncharted 2 wasn’t my speed, but I think this is a good and bad thing. Who knows if I’ll cook up an excuse here to talk about video-games further–time will tell.

For now, let’s say this. This trailer is really good stuff. Cheesy voice acting and somewhat histrionic lines, “the body will heal, but the mind is not so resilient,” works in tandem, and works quite well for some odd reason. I love the guy who’s like “They cannot stop us. They cannot stop the future.” Since when was “can’t” not good enough? Doesn’t matter–sounds cool.

3. Star Trek – Fan Trailer

Something about this one that I really dig. It echoes the romantic vision of space adventures (but with that modern spice) of the 2009 movie, and has the great sweeping camera moves and energy that make Star Trek stand out from every single one of its predecessors. In particular, I really like that shot of John Cho ready to fight, the way it flows with shots of other characters and you get that big music overlaying the whole thing (Freedom Fighters, by Two Steps from Hell) and dialogue from the gang and Romulan Villain Nero.

2. Avatar: The Aliens Trailer

They played this exact trailer (there are other TV spots like it) during some football game, which my dad was watching on a big, projected screen. I just about wet myself when I saw this trailer, because I, like everyone else, wasn’t 100% sold on the first few trailers for Avatar. This showed a movie that’s exactly what I want to see: Aliens. Not only Aliens, but like, Mega-Aliens. The marines are all OOH-RAH and they’re shooting their future guns and riding their robot suits and it all looks so pretty and violent and all about the space military…

God bless and also screw you to the editor who compiled this. God bless because it’s a great 30-second piece of entertainment, but screw you because you sold me the wrong movie. I would’ve seen Avatar anyway, but this got my hopes up to levels totally unecessary. Somehow, in the context of the movie, the lines, “We got movement out there,” and all that aren’t as exciting.

1. Blade Runner: The Final Cut – The Fountain?

The song, Tree of Life, I believe, is really awesome, very intense, and there’s no better movie to compliment it (aside from, you know, The Fountain) than Blade Runner. If only The Final Cut wasn’t a poop version of The Director’s Cut, this trailer would be perfect, but as it stands, we got all the Blade Runner trappings, snippets of classic dialogue like: More human than human is our motto, and I want more life sprinkly this ominous and foreboding little ad. They somehow made one of the boringest movies on record seem exciting, and for that, I give you five stars.

This was super easy to compile, I’ll do this again.

After being treated to a host of modern classics in the 1990s, science-fiction fans faced a cinematic drought once the decade turned, something that lasts even to this very day, where rare gems like Children of Men and District 9 come along far and few between to offer brief respite. Even though both of those movies were adaptations, they felt fresh thanks to keen filmmaking and sharp storytelling, and their contemporaries languish because the genre market is suffused with big names we’ve seen before on comics, novels, video-games, other movies, the shelves at Toys R Us, and – coming soon – board games. In most cases, this has proved to be quite the burden, as the commercial potential for such franchise titles pushes studios to pump them with many millions of dollars, which limits artistic risk-taking.

For such risk-taking we tend to look toward the indie scene, though as of late the line between independent film and big studio picture has blurred with the latter trying to ape the style of the former (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), and the ease of access to industry standard tech for consumer-level videomakers. Great visual effects are no longer solely the territory of giants like Digital Domain and Weta Workshop, they can be found online in fan films like Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy and Portal: No Escape. It would seem then, that even the independent science-fiction movie could be dumbed down.

That is of course if you believe that effects and expensive things come at the price of good storytelling and compelling characters. There does exist that obnoxious stereotype where all indies are good and minimalistic like The Man from Earth and all studio flicks are overblown and underthrought like Transformers 3. Time and again this has been proven false, so don’t be heartbroken when you discover that Monsters, as directed by Gareth Edwards, looks the part of a Hollywood spectacle.

In it, we follow off-and-on anti-hero Andrew Kaulder, played by Scoot McNairy, and the ever-needy Whitney Able, played by Samantha Wynden, as they journey through a Mexico infected by a mysterious alien menace. Not much about the aliens, referred to as ‘creatures’ here, can be gathered from watching the film, and certainly not the expository opening text that sets the scene. We come to assume that they’re hostile, as we see a military platoon fighting one and running around screaming like an updated moment from classic 50s B-movie science-fiction.

This film does feel rather modern, escaping its pulp alien invasion roots by employing shaky-cam (a staple of the independent movie) and documenting a human story. Much like Signs and to some extent Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens are significant, but a background element. We get the sense in all three movies that Battle: Los Angeles is happening somewhere, but somewhere not here. It’s an interesting take on the invasion story, and it serves well here.

The alternative would of course be unimaginable and inappropriate, for Monsters, as we might surmise from its deliberate title (going in we doubt that the eponymous Monsters will shake out to be the aliens in the end), is a drama. Elements of reality cross over to this shattered landscape – Mexican borders, invasive American military, poverty, and xenophobia, and very quickly it’s known that the movie isn’t here to showcase explosions and car chases and Transformers, but bring to light ideas. Like the greatest in science-fiction, Monsters makes a grab at asking the big questions, challenging us to shake our noggin awake.

Whether or not it succeeds in this regard seems somewhat inconsequential – audiences can sit down with District 9 and have a laugh or two before being absolutely riveted, and never put a thought to what’s just under the surface. Monsters is the same way; not as exciting, but engaging enough to make a satisfying experienced, filled out by devastated and desolate but always beautiful landscapes, and technically hampered only by flat dialogue and spotty acting.

Kaulder and Sam climb their way up to an ancient pyramid for a night’s rest later on in the film, and look out over the US-Mexico border, which has grown to a superstructure and replaces the horizon. They’ve been through hell to reach this point, and remark on how odd it feels to be outside America, looking in. We feel that this movie could have ventured to prod deeper and benefitted, but know also that moments like these could have played out much more heavy-handedly. So while this may stand out in a line of grim superhero movies and giant robot spectacles, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by Children of Men or Signs, but it was a hearfelt effort nonetheless.

Spoilers for District 9

I think that the first time I saw the movie, sitting in the theatre in August 2009, I was kind of down on the very end, where Wikus doesn’t transform back into a human. Of course, I didn’t fully fathom what the transformation meant. I knew there was allegory, that District 9 was thick was metaphor, and some of it was pretty blatant. But the transformation was a visual metapor, and this was something that didn’t quite connect at the time. The movie ends with Wikus’ wife talking about the alienized hero, and we see him making a flower out of garbage – both are notes of hope, and even though the ending isn’t necessarily ideal for our fast-talking protagonist, we know that the future is bright because one person was able to sympathize with the Prawns.

So what’s more important than the bright future, or even the denoument preceding it, is the ending fight scene. Often laughed off as a cheap action movie third act, giving me flashbacks to the dreary criticisms of Sunshine and its infamous third act, so much happens in the final action sequence, a culmination that explodes with an energy typically lost on modern day SF movies (I’m looking at you, every superhero movie ever made with the exception of Punisher War Zone). This is the quintessential sequence to showcase the expert craftmanship employed by Neil Blomkamp, as it combines all the great editing and camerawork we’ve now gotten used to as established eary on – but there’s a difference, a sense of gravity and weight to everything that is going on.

Van Wikus dons a mech suit and gets Christopher Johnson to safety, and then murders as many hostile PMCs as possible in appropriately angry and gory ways. It’s surprisingly visceral. We feel everything that Wikus does, as he goes on cursing everyone out and firing off lasers and rockets. He’s finally embodied the true essence of empathy and cross cultural understanding: he had long ago crossed the bridge between the worlds of humans and Prawns, but now he is finally able to do something about it – and he’s pissed. That’s what District 9 is all about. It’s a more-than-clever movie that combines sociopolitical philosophy with hard-hitting, unexpected, jaw-dropping entertainment, and does it in such a way where the former is an extension of the other. It works out so well because this movie was a very personal work from director Blomkamp.

It’s not a Ghost in the Shell scenario where action and philosophy sequences are often segregated (often, not always – recall if you will the museum sequence filled to the brim with tiny little metaphors), the ideas are embedded in the actions and events, and these actions and events just so happen to have the polish of top-tier science-fiction action harkening back to 1991. That the culmination of ideas could happen in this moment of rage and chaos and violence and works so beautifully speaks to the general consensus of the movie – nobody saw it coming. The trailers made it look good, but I don’t think that anybody could have guessed just how great it would actually end up.

In fact, let’s for a moment examine the other major science-fiction movie of 2009, something that certainly won’t appear under the “An Appreciation” moniker – Avatar. It was on television today and I was watching the ending war scene like ‘yeah, yeah, this is pretty cool stuff. I love space marines…’ but as it went on I just kept shaking my head and checking my watch (even though I was watching TV). There was something just so idiotic about the whole thing, and I really need to revisit that complicated film. But anyways I realized why I didn’t like the Na’vi, and along with I just like space military better on principle – characterization goes a long way, and it was largely absent here. Such is not the case with District 9. There are no cheap archetypes here, no wise mentors or heroic sacrifices from secondary characters. It’s a film that feels and looks genuine, not overdone and underprepared (somehow).

With Elysium still in development, or late development, we still can only hope that the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ that has claimed so many filmmakers does not extend to Neil Blomkamp, because his debut is in the same league as John Singleton’s and Tarantino’s. It’s not only set a precedent for his career, but for the science-fiction genre, and nearly two years later it has yet to be matched.


Death Threats

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