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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.

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Spoilers for The Abyss, Avatar, my life

James Cameron is a champion of technology in film, and his latest thing is 3D. I’m among the majority that tends to scoff at 3D in movies and TV; there’s just too much about it I disagree with. But in the case of Avatar, 3D makes sense, and it is perhaps the only movie where the visually stunning gimmick has thematic significance, aside from maybe Friday the 13th Part III. It’s a movie where immersion is of the utmost import, such that it should stretch beyond the hero and onto the audience. We feel what he feels because it’s our journey of discovery too – he’s our avatar.

The award-winning filmmaker has always upped the ante with each movie in terms of technology, diving into one of the most difficult and technically challenging shoots ever with The Abyss (which nearly claimed the life of Ed Harris), and diving further with those deep sea documentaries and that critical darling Titanic. It’s kind of ironic, seeing as how his iconic Terminator would theoretically make him out to be some kind of creative luddite.

Alas no, and Avatar is the next step in this evolution, and it’s hands down the best-looking film of all time. Best visual effects, besting Transformers and The Lord of the Rings and Pirates 3 and even Terminator 2 by miles. Is it the most beautiful film? That comes down to art design, and I still contend that movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell 2 achieve higher in that department. It’s something that can’t be overlooked or treated lightly – impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the quality of work here, so in the end I don’t think it’s entirely unfortunate that the visuals are the only thing the movie has going for it.

Now, for two years I had read every article online about Avatar, seen every production still and followed it closely such that the words Project 880 burned into my eyes; I had never been more excited for a movie. It was James Cameron’s return to feature films after a decade, and his return to science-fiction (more importantly) after nearly twenty years. Also note that the last time he made a science-fiction film, he made Terminator 2. Everything seemed to add up, and this was looking to be the most ambitious magnum opus attempted. It would be his first SF flick I’d be alive to see in theatres, so I was going opening night.

That decision came probably in 2007. Two years later, it was two days after opening night, a Sunday. Me and a friend of mine were able to see it at the IMAX, which was pleasant, as that screen was both huge and three-dimensional. Two and a half hours later I stumbled out. My friend was like, “Yeah that was pretty good. What did you think, Harry?” and I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.

And I continued to think about it. I recall recording a podcast about it, but don’t remember what I said. Probably that it was good but not nearly as good as it should have been. Well it’s July 9th 2011 as I write this, it’ll probably go up tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing: I now understand what people feel when they hear the words The Phantom Menace. They cringe inside, they feel slightly embarassed.

As the months were drawing closer to December 22, 2009, the Internet was ablaze with a storm of “holy shit Avatar trailers… suck?” and I was one pissed off little nerdlet. That’s actually what made me break up with a podcast I had listened to loyally for like two years – Slice of Scifi. It was the very first podcast I had ever heard of, and was kind of a personal stepping stone into further nerdom, but when the first Avatar trailer was underwhelming and one of the guys said, “He should just stick to documentaries,” I couldn’t believe it. To be fair, I remember the other guys wrangling him in like “Hey. That’s too far,” but it was too late. I loved James Cameron. He had done only good for the world, unless you count those many ex-wives and one disgruntled Harlan Ellison (not JC’s fault).

I was like, “Have you people forgotten what this man has wrought?” Apparently T2 wasn’t like the greatest thing ever, and it kind of makes sense. I grew up watching the movie, and would only later discover the general consensus was that Aliens was actually his best film (this is in nerd circles, of course, where we don’t use the T word. No, the other one). My heart was broken; I felt betrayed, but my burning desire to confirm that Avatar would blow my fucking mind, man, burned all the brighter – and it burned for half as long, as the movie was nearing release.

In the aftermath, I still don’t want to hear commentary on Avatar, and fortunately have suffered only a minimal amount. It’s just hard because I acknowledge that it’s a bad movie, but I’m in denial. Also exacerbating my perception of the film is the fact that the visuals are out of this world. They elevate the movie, but it’s still a bad, bad movie. It sucks. Seriously, it fucking blows. Cameron took ten years to write this script? Should’ve been looking over Nolan’s shoulder – and I never thought I’d say that.

Apparently I can say that it sucks, but I won’t hear it from anyone else. It’s like if somebody is self-conscious, they can laugh at themselves nervously and say they’re weird, sure. But God forbid anybody else do the same. If I were in your position reading this (I hope somebody reads this) I’d be shaking my head and thinking, no, nobody should read this. It’s inappropriate.

But like I said earlier. It’s July 9th, 2011. It’s been awhile. I’ve had time to think, and I’ve come to my conclusions. I guess now I should tell you why. (Please God don’t let this be a Scott Pilgrim-lengthed post… it won’t be nearly as fun to write…)

The biggest problem I’ll always have with Avatar, and with James Cameron, is his treatment of the military in his movies. Aliens owes everything it is to Military SF like Starship Troopers – essentially Cameron pulled a Wachowski Brothers and said “I want to do this for real,” (preempting Verhoeven by ten years) referring to space marines, of course, who have never been seen before or since the 1986 movie. The military isn’t depicted unfairly or anything, but their ultimately being criticized in a Vietnam War allegory – situations occur where technologically advanced forces are beaten time and again by the lesser-equipped simply because they didn’t know what they were doing.

In The Abyss, the military once again dons the face of Michael Biehn, and they are spoilers the badguys. The Terminator actually offers an interesting view, one that I agree with – the marriage of technology and warfare seems to breed something we won’t be able to handle in years down the road, and here it’s depicted as Skynet. Isn’t it interesting that in order to fight this ungodly child we have to resort to warfare as well? That could have made an interesting study, but unfortunately that’s never what Terminator was about, and instead of something where we destroy ourselves with combat, we get Rise of the Machines.

And finally in Avatar we have the space military in all their glory – but they’re assholes. We have one qualifying line in the beginning where hero Jake Sully notes that these are sort of the rejects, a PMC squad working for a capital-c Company, think Weyland-Yutani. Alright, fine, they’re not really America’s military or Space America’s marines or anybody we should be rooting for, but the end product is still space marines are the bad guy. And that really rides me. I’m not some gun-nut who unconditionally praises American’s army, it’s just that my feelings about the military seem to conflict with Cameron’s various depictions, and goddamn it – it wouldn’t be so bad if the heroes of the tale, the Na’vi, weren’t so goddamn insulting.

I’m not even saying they’re disrespectful towards Native Americans – I’m saying they’re disrespectful towards me because they use the fact that they’re Native Americans, and nakedly so, to draw sympathy rather than use actual characterization. What does Zoe Saldana want? I don’t know, to save the trees. Oh so her character coincides with the message of the film. That means she’s a blank slate to which Cameron can paint his environmental theme – she’s like Mr. Exposition for the moral of the tale, and that’s bullshit. That’s not writing; the themes should come about in a more organic manner. We shouldn’t be tricked into getting the message, we should just get it.

Let’s look at these goddamn things, these Na’vi [from Zelda]: they’re interesting looking, but I don’t like them at all. Not only do they look like taller versions of Asari, they’re somehow worse, if that’s even imaginable. They’re cliche because they’re Out-to-Save-the-World Native Americans, and they’re uninteresting because Cameron thought that he didn’t have to write anything beyond that. Was that seriously your selling point? Did you actually think that that made these things compelling? That they liked nature? Are you fucking kidding me?

And we haven’t even touched upon the alien sex. I guess the most poetic way to show our hero becoming one with nature was to have him bump uglies with a nine foot tall cat, and (actually, does that even happen in the movie? I forget) I guess it’s just consistent enough with the other garbage going on that we don’t notice how zoophillic that is. It’s okay though – she’s hot. Look at that sexy tail… Well, at least Zoe Saldana is in real life actually very attractive, and – fun fact – another extremely good-looking woman, Yunjin Kim (Lost, Shiri) screentested for the same character. But anyways…

He tries to draw us into an unconventional romance through conventional means, and nothing could be more inappropriate or miscalculated. It’s true love and it has to be, as the message to stress with Avatar is be cool with everything and everyone. Cross-cultural boundaries should be breached, but more generally and more significantly, we need to have open minds if we want to save the world(s). Makes sense on paper, but in the film, it just does not work. Let’s look at some other unconventional relationships in movies, and the two that come into my mind maybe aren’t obvious examples of this which is itself not an obvious thing: JSA: Joint Security Area, an old standby on Dreck Fiction, and The Yakuza.

In JSA we have, and I hate this term, a bromance. What’s more, it’s a forbidden bromance, but let’s just call it a friendship. These guys aren’t supposed to be friends – it should be shocking that they’re even talking to each other. Their relationship develops very naturally throughout, and when it all comes crashing down, like they anticipated, it’s tragic. It works because we get a feel for these characters and we don’t want to see them fail.

With The Yakuza, we have an interesting relationship between two guys, Harry Kilmer and Tanaka Ken. What they have is both weaker and stronger than a frienship, because they share something important but can never just chill and hang out. Dialogue between the two is alternatively tense and poigniant, and it’s handled just as we should expect from such writers with pedigrees as Paul Shrader and Robert Towne.

So the fact that Cameron treats his odd relationship with normal terms – courtship, which is bizarre – is embarassing and kind of naive. There even could have been an interesting discussion there about cross-species relationships, but as it stands the Na’vi just persist in being no different from us afterall. This really is like Mass Effect, but that title – a video-game, mind you – makes up for it with surprising levels of characterization and a cool SF story.

Avatar has no such thing. Its story is template. Formula. Seen before. As much as those fuckings mountains in the sky are wowing and unprecedented (except for those wonderful Internet comparison photos, courtesy of a dozen beautiful minds), we can’t be entirely swept away because this story is so damn familiar. Story beats seem to be hit like somebody’s checking them off a list, and as a result, everybody is a stereotype or an archetype. There isn’t one original character in the entire movie. We have the tough-as-nails mentor with a heart of gold played by Sigourney Weaver, the tough-as-nails pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, the guy who starts out antagonizing our hero until he becomes one of the People and then heroically sacrifices himself, the racist old guy (the only good character), the nerdy technician, and the flawless hero.

Star Wars is a similar situation, in that it used archetypes like the gunslinger Han Solo and the Hero’s Journey hero Luke Skywalker. But in the context of what Star Wars is, it makes sense and it works beautifully, which is why that movie is and will be remembered for being a good movie, but Avatar will be remembered for being pioneering. Unfortunately people and things that set the wheel in motion are forgotten when surpassed – think Willis O’brien when Ray Harryhausen came along.

The potential Avatar had was really the thing that pissed me off the most. It’s a science-fiction movie by James Cameron. It’s got dragons, it’s got space helicopters, it’s got war. How do you fuck that up? Big things and littles things. Big things like blank-slate characters, and little things like moments that just feel so out-of-place and immature, like when the rhinos pop out of the forest to victory music and overwhelm the enemy soldiers at the last second.

It’s a beautiful movie, and it will always look good because the art design will hold up, though I do think the mechs were better-looking in The Matrix Revolutions. The casting was good, the technology was in place, but the script needed work – about ten more years. And left in the center is one confused nerd, and I doubt I’ll even seek out Avatar 2 in the theatres. I just wish he’d drop this ‘trilogy’ bullshit and go ahead with Battle Angel. Maybe at this point in his career he needs established characters to work with, but who knows? Hopefully I’ll come to reneg on those words.

I’ve been wrong before.

War in film has never really worked out for me; as a genre in premise it seems to be a quick route to success, but the titles contained don’t always match such expectations. Truly, certain movies are critically acclaimed, like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, but these are too boring and too long for me to handle. With general consensus around The Thin Red Line being “it’s a beautiful and poetic war experience,” I figured it to be different, but it was just the same – in fact being a choice example for war movies that are too damn long and too damn boring for me to handle.

Movies like Apocalypse Now and Letters from Iwo Jima don’t have to depend on its battle sequences to be exciting, their crutches are good stories and good characters. At the very least they held attention by being consistent in narrative continuity, never feeling meandering or ponderous. What we have here with The Thin Red Line is three hours of people sitting, walking, talking, thinking, and occasionally fighting, in gorgeous jungles.

From what I understand of our current conflicts overseas, soldiers today sit around for most of the year, and their time doing that is punctuated by brief moments of brutal, adrenaline-pumped violence. The Thin Red Line seems faithful to this idea, but it’s actually unfortunate, as the end result feels like two and a half hours of inactivity.

The film is a mission movie, where infantry during World War II makes its way across an island fighting the Japanese and trying to reach some point, a ledge, perhaps. Simple premise, but that’s usually a good thing in this genre. Off of the premise, the rest of the movie is constructed of philosophical internal monologues, arguments over command, and battle scenes.

Seems like a decent formula, and it would be if the movie was a short film, but in fact The Thin Red Line is twice as long as your usual feature. Also not helping is the lack of a plot and a lack of compelling characterization, which while not always necessary, would have brought a lot to this movie.

I remember when talking about The Dollars Trilogy way back when I complained that there was rarely a plot, and this meant that there was no sense of development, so it grew increasingly difficult to be engaged. The Thin Red Line rarely changes location, and never does anything new past the first thirty minutes, so I made a dedicated habit of checking the clock – and was hugely disappointed every time I checked. It just never ended.

As for the internal monologues, I found that they were done much more cinematic-friendly here than something like Dune, but they couldn’t quite replace conventional characterization. I didn’t care about that one guy’s romance because I never got the guy’s name and didn’t know anything about him. Nick Nolte’s character was actually fairly interesting, and his exchange with John Cusack was probably the highlight of the film (aside from Thomas Jane), though it’s kind of insignificant in context, but everyone else is flat and rarely seen.

So what the poetic monologues do to the film is make it feel like listening to a really smart and confident but pretentious asshole talking about something he doesn’t know about – he makes things up and talks around things, but sounds good doing it. Just wish it didn’t take so long.

On a positive note, I liked the discussions of the afterlife, and the fact that the enemy was rarely seen, which seemed to be more plausible from the soldier’s perspective than what we as audiences are usually privy to. Also, the movie looks great, and this can’t be overlooked. The beauty of the setting is matched only by the grace of the camera capturing it, and this is intelligently juxtaposed with the violence of warfare. But if that’s all the movie has going for it, then it does afterall belong in the same league as those other war movies, which is a damn shame and a surpirse – it seemed to have actual aspirations, higher than recreating battle.

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.

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