District 9, written by Terri Tatchell and Neill Blomkamp (who also directed) has a clever premise (though not an original one; it’s already served as the basis for a couple of films and TV series) and is ultimately moving, but it’s also one of those movies in which I turn out to be a party pooper. I’m sorry, but I simply didn’t like it as much as other people did. The most interesting aspect of the story was how four people, three of them white and one black, all think they are the center of the universe and simply can’t conceive of the idea that they aren’t, in spite of the fact that the earth has now been visited by aliens. For three of these people, this leads to their death (though the hero, played by Sharlto Copley, finds redemption) while one, the owner of a private security firm (can you say “Blackwater”), who also happens to be the hero’s father-in-law, escapes totally unscathed. For me, the whole movie suffers from structural weakness (it starts out with one plot and then halfway through changes horses and goes in a different direction) and a story that doesn’t always convince. The first half revolves around a mid-level bureaucrat (Copley—see my review of Inglorious Basterds) having to railroad a group of space aliens out of their ghetto into a new, even worse ghetto. The move, backed up by the private security firm, is so poorly organized and sloppily carried out, it’s never really believable (though it’s difficult to say whether it truly is poorly organized or if the director thought a well organized, more believable relocation would be too dull to put on camera, so he jazzed it up with hand held camera work and a lot of manufactured chaos). When the hero gets infected by something and starts turning alien, his father-in-law abducts him for his own nefarious reasons; at this point, the story has one of those twists that is utterly ridiculous—once the father-in-law determines that the hero is no longer useful, he plans to off him. This would never happen since the hero is still very useful; there is still too much to study and the hero is worth more alive than dead. But if the father-in-law doesn’t make the decision to kill the hero, then the second half of the movie can’t transpire (isn’t it nice when one of the characters knows they’re in a movie and is willing to do what needs to be done to keep the plot going the way the author wants). Once the hero escapes, the movie becomes a rather routine, though exciting and well executed, chase picture in which the hero decides to help some aliens return to their home planet. Here the hero goes through that traditional character arc so beloved of books and film school classes on screenwriting. In one way, I don’t want to knock the movie; considering the relatively small budget, the writer, director and technicians have achieved something somewhat remarkable. But, though enjoyable, I’m just not convinced it rises above what it is. And perhaps I wouldn’t even have a problem with it not rising about what it is if everybody else didn’t keep saying that it does when it doesn’t.
Moon, written by Nathan Parker from a story by director Duncan Jones, in many ways had a deeper emotional effect on me, perhaps because its themes, for whatever reason, have a deeper resonance for my life. In the future, Earth needs supplies and is getting them from the moon by way of a mining factory run by a single person, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is counting down the days until he can return home to his wife and daughter on earth, but then something strange happens. He has an accident while out investigating a malfunction and wakes up in sick bay, saved by his 2001 type Hal robot (with the silky voice of Kevin Spacey, an existential nightmare in itself). Well, accidents happen; the problem is that when Rockwell reinvestigates the incident, he finds that he’s still there. He brings his double back to the mining base and slowly discovers the real truth: he himself, along with his twin, is actually a clone of the original Rockwell, who is still on earth, much older and now a widower. Every so many years, as a Rockwell clone runs down, it is replaced by another clone (there are thousands of them) with a false memory of having been in an accident where they lost consciousness and are now waking up. But now that Rockwell is aware of who he is, the question then becomes, who is he? Moon asks the same question as movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Screamers: if one can’t tell the difference between a robot, android, clone, etc. and a human being, then is there a difference? If you can’t tell them apart, then what makes a human being a human being? Of course, this is in many ways a philosophical question that one usually only deals with late at night in college when one is drunk, mainly because no robot or android has been created that one can mistake for a human being; the question is academic. At the same time, that doesn’t stop it from being haunting with a deep emotional resonance for many people (including moi). So when Rockwell decides to fight for his existence, I became deeply involved in his desire to be considered fully human. As I said, this suffers from the same structural problems as District 9. Moon starts out as a meandering story about someone trying to survive being isolated on the moon. Then it changes when Rockwell discovers his double and the story arc changes. In addition, the transition between the two story threads is weak. In District 9, it’s not believable that anyone would want to kill the hero; in Moon, Rockwell’s reaction to finding his double is too low key and not convincing. Neither story really takes off until they get past these problematic areas. Both are examples of scripts with week first acts, but strong final ones.