Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science fiction double feature: "Moon" and "District 9"

So I decided to splurge and saw three movies this past weekend. "Up" on Friday (which was surprisingly okay, although I have very snarky things to say about the previews and some beef which I can't quite recall with the opening animation) as well as the two named above. In this post I'm going to address them. They were surprisingly well matched for an evening of science fiction cinema, more well made and insightful than I have seen in a long time, perhaps ever.

I will flag spoilers, but to some extent every review has some spoilage involved; if you want to come to something without preconceptions, don't read any reviews.
You can go read the argument about this subject on Tor.com if you need to bitch about it.

First, synopses. "Moon", directed by Duncan Jones, is about a miner named Sam Bell who is on a three year contract to babysit excavating machines and send Helium-3, which is apparently valuable as an energy source, back to Earth from the dark side of our moon.
"District 9", directed by Neil Blomkamp, is about marooned aliens who show up in a ship which appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. The government provides them with humanitarian aid (they are starving) and then puts them in a refugee camp, which becomes a slum more like an open air prison than anything else, and forbids them to interact with humans.

Both are topical in their own ways, although there's a more important message at the heart of Blomkamp's film than Jones'. That's a pity, because Jones*' film has a better signal to noise ratio.

Whether you're hearing about the film for the first time here or you've read a more detailed synopsis elsewhere, it should be clear that "District 9" is intended to explore apartheid. The advertising campaign has mostly involved signs like these http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicolelee/2699689682/ and these http://la.curbed.com/archives/2009/06/another_billboard_mystery_solved.php. I wonder how many people have dismissed the message as another movie ad campaign and given it no more thought, and how many people have noticed and felt disquieted. I don't remember seeing the signs anywhere until I visited the restroom at the movie theatre, and if I didn't know the context I'm not sure it would have gotten through to me, depressingly enough. I think the folks it was supposed to get through to, in ways other than as a movie ad, it didn't get through to, and probably just made folks who don't need to be reminded uncomfortable. See the second photo.

Historical apartheid seems elided in the film somehow, but telltale traces of history seep through. Although we see a number of Black characters in middle management at MNU, the government agency tasked with controlling the aliens, most Black characters are soldiers or Nigerian arms traders. Wikus, the White Afrikaner main character, calls Black subordinates "boy" and they call him "boss". At one point when a White Afrikaner soldier has shot an alien who was standing right next to Wikus' second in command, a Black man who is addressed by name maybe once in the film and whose name I cannot determine online (which is significant, I think), he raises his arms in surrender, as if he were the one being threatened, and then lowers them when he realizes what has happened.

I also realize at some level I have a fundamental problem with the rhetorical strategy of comparing humans with aliens when trying to get sympathy for the humans in question. It may have something in common with the techniques of the famous essay "A Modest Proposal", but nonetheless...that pins down why I didn't entirely engage with "District 9".

Skillfully executed special effects and disturbing parallels to events in the real world made me feel physically ill several times. Weta did a beautiful job. That said, Hollywoodization dilutes the film's message, so strong in its first half, but lost with the break from documentary format. There are a few feeble relapses later on, using security cams, but ultimately the switch from documentary to dramatic film format marks where the film loses its critical lens, pun very much intended.

SPOILERS AHEAD; highlight text to read.

It makes sense that the hero-izing of Wikus begins at this point, when the viewer is encouraged to empathize with his physical suffering and maltreatment at the hands of his callous father-in-law and biddable MNU personnel. His torture at the hands of scientists and doctors becomes a stand-in for the historical torture and murder of Blacks in similar circumstances (whether under interrogation or as unwilling participants in medical "research", see similar stories here: Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present), as if that could redeem him when previously in the film he was marked as a villain. In a particularly disturbing scene early on, he burns a shed full of alien babies in ovo, comparing the noises caused by their destruction to popping popcorn and offering their disconnected nutrient feeds to the invisible documentarians and his coworkers as souvenirs or trophies. Later on, he separates an alien child from its father, Christopher Johnson, who he leaves to die, selfishly trying to get to the alien ship so he can stop being part alien. He suffers a crisis of conscience later and rescues Christopher, who then stands by him as he attempts to fight off a platoon of soldiers headed up by a very durable White Afrikaner soldier (can't remember a name) who keeps showing up throughout the movie (in fact threatened Wikus' second in command) and may unfortunately become a cult hero for some teens watching it, of course.

I'm sure the director is trying to make Wikus a gray area, a complex human being--callous and tender, innocent and cruel, developing over time to an awareness of the harm he has done, perhaps--but instead all that comes across is inconsistency and weakness. Perhaps that is intentional too, but when he is unsubtly positioned as The Hollywood Hero Who Saves The Good Aliens this is pretty problematic...

The image of Wikus suffering as he is forced to fire various alien weapons with his transformed arm, serving as MNU's intermediary, forced to shoot a helpless alien (when previously he treated them callously) is clearly an allegorical and semi-sympathetic portrayal of "innocents" working for the system in apartheid South Africa . . .
Interesting that, to the end, his still calls them prawns. I think you can figure out the real world parallel for that term on your own.

I'm also not sure what I think of the Nigerian arms dealers. On the one hand, Blomkamp is clearly trying to position MNU as the White bad guys (headed up by Wikus' father in law) and the Nigerians as the Black bad guys, so that it has heroes and villains from both races and can claim evenhandedness. Maybe there are historical parallels; at this point I don't know and don't care. Certainly the idea of consuming a creature to gain its abilities isn't alien to various people who practice witchcraft in some parts of Africa--in fact, I've heard various lurid stories about rare animals killed, or small children or people with albinism murdered or kidnapped so parts of them could be used for spirit medicine--and it provides the head of the Nigerian gang with a reason to chase after Wikus and add additional tension to the plot. But I suspect most audiences won't get it, and as a result we'll have just one more stereotypical "movie savage who eats gross things" added to the American memory. It bothers me. Maybe I'm missing something. At this point it isn't really about reality, it is about messages, and the message in this film gets strangled by the desire to make an action movie. Maybe the studio did it. Maybe Peter Jackson did it. Maybe Blomkamp himself made that decision, bceause he thought if he kept viewers in their seats with sensationalism the actual message might seep in, a message better expressed (if still problematically so, look at the logo at the top of the page...funny thing, the logo on the District 9 website has a Black hand instead of a White one) in spinoff websites like this one http://www.mnuspreadslies.com/

One of the first things I said to Mike after exiting the theatre is that "Moon" will become a classic,

SPOILERS AHEAD highlight text to read

not only because it was well made but because it is such an artifact of its time. And when I said that, I wasn't referring to the obvious relevance of alternative sources of energy, I was thinking of laid off auto industry employees and particularly returned soldiers who may see it and identify with its protagonist. His injuries and accelerating decline at a young age; the fitness routines has has to go through; Gerty's cognitive testing; the image of new clone Sam rescuing old clone Sam, or carrying him, now a fallen comrade, to the crashed transport to die, and the company's instrumental treament of him. Beginning with dominance struggles and hostility, two versions of the same man only three years apart interact like father and son, or older and younger brother. I love the sequence where they pretend not to hear each other, first when new clone Sam is practicing with a boxing bag and drowning old Sam's questions out. Heck, when the first ignore each other it makes me think a little of Solaris but without the creepiness. This film is a study of male psychology as much as it is a portrait of a man going to pieces.
That it looks as good as it does on what is apparently a shoestring budget is also admirable.
Set dressing, lighting, costuming--all well done.

Both Mike and I also found "Moon" to be an admirable piece of hard sf. Sam's pathetically pointless exercises intended to prevent bone loss and his eventual death due to what had to be radiation sickness resulting from his lengthy (probably inadequately shielded) stay on a planet with a negligible atmosphere are the first two things that come to mind. But there's other stuff as well, like the face display on Gerty, which reminds me of current efforts in experimental robotics with facial recognition and emotional expression. Also the small plant area (probably not his only source of oxygen, I think). And although some would take issue with Gerty assisting Sam, my sense is that it was programmed to protect and safeguard him, hence it listening to the company operatives when they present not allowing Sam outside the dome as a protective measure. Gerty is bound by Asimov's laws of robotics, and so it didn't break its programming, it simply acted within the bounds of what was permitted to assist the center of its world. Mike suggested if it were some sort of AI it might understand in some fashion the similarity between its role and Sam's, as slaves of the corporation, and I can see that as well. But that is a gaping weakness in the plot, its admission of Sam being a clone and other essential details, after original demurrals. I'm also puzzled how he managed to damage the gas line without Gerty noticing and stopping him, surprised that there weren't more cameras everywhere, and wondering whether the "rescue" team would notice there were two missing spacesuits instead of one. Maybe new spacesuits were packed with each Sam. I wonder how his room got cleaned up and each set of personal effects got destroyed after the end of each iteration as well...

Films like this and Sunshine (which failed in a multitude of ways, but tried valiantly) are the sort of realistic hard sf people need to see to understand what sending humans into space means, to consider the ethics of that decision. Because I doubt as many folks as see these will read James Patrick Kelly's "Breakaway, Backdown".

These were good movies to see together.

SPOILERS AHEAD highlight text to read

Like most Hollywood movies, everyone in "Moon" is White, as far as I could tell, and its message was about personal identity, masculinity, and class. But both films try to tell stories with themes we struggle with here in the real world, and there a similarities between the protagonists, who both go through agonizing processes of physical disintegration as they are refined into heroes. They vomit, they lose teeth, they tend suppurating wounds, and interestingly, both of them have injured hands. Both are victims of powerful organizations with a vested interest in using these men's bodies, whether for labor or as sources of valuable biotech. Surprising we don't see more movies about women like this, unless I missed them, since usually the folks who get treated instrumentally are women, particularly women of color, not white men.

But of course, the viewer of most science fiction films is probably assumed to be a white man between the ages of 20 and 40, and if you want to get through to them you have to give them protagonists that look like them. Right.

"Up" was surprisingly good, but I have issues with the whole idea of South America as a mass of unknown jungle, empty of inhabitants. Also, the trailer for Disney's new Princess and the Frog movie had me breaking out in a rash. Apparently you can only have a Black princess when she has to kiss an amphibian, because of course you aren't going to ask one of your pale as paper White girls to do that, no! And of course if she's Black, it has to be set in New Orleans, a stereotypical French Quarter tourism New Orleans, with very likely some nonsense stereotype voodoo and hoodoo folded in, gag. Right. Typical Disney. Did you hear that man was a a Nazi?
And no, Jasime doesn't count in this case, she's not Black! And "Aladdin" has its own issues...

Amusing tidbit: Jones is also known as Zowie Bowie. He is the son of David Bowie, the fellow who wrote "Space Oddity", which was played during television coverage of the Apollo moon landing 40 years ago this year. Watch my poor brain pour out of my ears. I'm sure I'm not the first person to note this, given that Wikipedia mentions it; also, the guy who did the music, Clint Mansell, composed for "Π" as well, a movie Mike loves.

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