APOCOLYPSE NOW REDUX REDUX: Review of 9 (followed in another post by Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and Zombieland)

9 is what I usually call a curiosity; something that is certainly interesting, but exactly what I’m suppose to make of it is a bit of a mystery. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Screamers, the question is asked, if one can’t determine the difference between a robot, android, clone etc. and a human being, is there one? In 9, the answer is assumed and it is no, there is none, they are the same. It’s questionable whether this works out in a satisfactorily dramatic manner because in many ways 9 answers the question the way the authors Pamela Pettler and Shane Acker (who also directed) may not have intended—they want to suggest there is no difference, but everything in the movie screams the opposite. These dolls may have self awareness and emotions, but they just don’t make it as replacements for human beings. For example, they can’t reproduce (so even if they do survive, it doesn’t mean anything to the continuation of the human race). Though some are older than others, they can’t age (though presumably they can decay). And fortunately for the producers and directors and the MPAA ratings board, they can’t go through puberty, much less have sex (the authors even go to the trouble of creating one female doll—only one, mind you, I suppose that’s all females are worth in this futuristic world—but to what end is hard to say, except to get little girls into the audience). And so in the end, it’s a little difficult to become fully invested emotionally in some dolls desperately trying to survive a post apocalyptic world where not only are there no more human beings, there doesn’t seem to be life forms left of any sort.

In spite of the questionable philosophy behind the story line itself, there is much to admire here. The animation is remarkable and the action sequences exciting. But the real star of the whole shebang may be the sound designers and engineers. The film is filled with strange clicks and berplunks, eerie whinings and buzzings, doing as much to create the reality of this world as the animators themselves. At the same time, the voiceovers may be a matter of taste. For me, only Christopher Plummer’s menacing evil bass really carries the day. The others, like those of Elijah Wood and John C. Reilly, seem a bit awkward, more like voices used to dub anime rather than actors used to create original characters

Though the time is the future, it really has more in common with post World War II Europe. The animation style resembles that of cartoons coming out of post-Communist Eastern Europe. The machinery has an old timey feel as well buoyed by a guest appearance of a crank up Victrola (somehow this world bypassed CD players and iPods). Though the theme is universal, the politics steer clear of anything U.S. of A. with the use of key words by the bad guys like “comrade” and “the state”. One character, dressed like a concentration camp survivor, spends his time creating drawings in a style called concentration camp gothic. And the scenes of a city bombed out use backgrounds that look like the devastated cities of Dresden and Berlin in the 1940’s. In other words, though the destruction of the world is all our faults, some political views and philosophies are more to blame than others. Nothing like hedging one’s bets.

The ending resembles something more anime than something made locally. It sorta, kinda makes sense, but not really and not if one tries to figure it out. The way the evil machine is destroyed feels arbitrary and the characters returning as ghouls perhaps means something to the filmmakers, but it went over my head. The final scene, which I suppose is suppose to be hopeful (it starts raining and the drops contain what seem to be the beginning of life), struck me as incredibly depressing. It’s hard to say what you’re suppose to make of a happy ending which says that everything is going to be all right, or at least it will in 25 million years when evolution again recreates human life as we know it.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON: Reviews of District 9 and Moon

I know I’m absurdly late in reviewing District 9 (as well as Moon, but no one cares about Moon that much, which is a shame because it’s just as worthy as District 9 in being talked about). Both are sci-fi stories about an idea: District 9’s is political and in your face while Moon’s is existential and introspective (which may tell you why District 9 got all the press).

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.