Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Recapping 2009: Year Four of Reflections on Film and TV

We're rapidly approaching the end of 2009 and -- at least by one way of counting -- the end of the first decade of the 21st century (2000 - 2009) too.

Accordingly, I'll be assembling my "best of" lists regarding television and film for 2009, and for the decade too. However, I still have to see Avatar, Moon and Paranormal Activity, so I'm not rushing to judgment here....

But in the meantime I wanted to look back one last time at the year that was, especially here on Reflections on Film and Television. 2009 was the blog's biggest year ever, with a whopping 41,000+ more visitors than in 2008. The last quarter of 2009 was, in fact, the biggest quarter ever on the blog. The year saw approximately 316 posts here, and covered a variety of film and TV-related topics.

Early in the year I looked back at some genre "classics" from my mis-spent youth, including Jaws (1975), Logan's Run (1976), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Black Hole (1979), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), Tron (1982), Alien Nation (1988), and Enemy Mine (1985).

This year also saw my retrospective of John Carpenter's later career span, including the director's more controversial films: Prince of Darkness (1987), Village of the Damned (1995) and Ghosts of Mars (2001).

A good portion of 2009 was also taken up with my detailed study of the career of another favorite director, the amazing Brian De Palma. I reviewed many of his films including Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), Raising Cain (1992), Mission: Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000) and Redacted (2007).

Early in the year, I also undertook a survey of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo in the cinema, beginning with book and film reviews of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and leading into productions such as Mysterious Island, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City and even the 1978 TV mini-series The Return of Captain Nemo.

In the world of TV, I continued my investigation of the intriguing, thematically-valuable (and consistent) universe of Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions, with two essays on Millennium (Enemies Within, and Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open), as well as a retrospective of the late, lamented Harsh Realm (1999-2000) and "Via Negativa," a late-era X-Files installment starring Robert Patrick. The year ended with a personal and professional high point for me: an in-depth interview with Chris Carter himself.

In other TV-related posts, I dissected the first four episodes of the new V, was underwhelmed by The Vampire Diaries, The Prisoner, as well as the pilot for FlashForward. I also remembered nostalgic cult favorites including Mission: Impossible (1967), The All-New Super Friends (1977), Twin Peaks (1991), Dracula: The Series (1990), Werewolf (1987-1988), At The Movies (1982-1986), One Step Beyond (1959-1961), She-Wolf of London (1991), Automan (1983), The Man From Atlantis (1976), Monster Squad (1976), V: The Series (1986), Firefly (2002) and more.

This was also the year of new cinematic favorites including Knowing, Star Trek, District 9 and Drag Me to Hell. Additionally, 2009 was also the final year of production on my independent, dramatic web series, The House Between (to be released on soundtrack CD and DVD in 2010...). My no-budget but big-hearted show (in the third and final season) was nominated for "Best Web Production" at Airlock Alpha (formerly Sy Fy Portal).

Finally, some of my personal favorite posts this year involved in-depth, lengthy essays. I particularly enjoyed writing The Tao of Michael Myers regarding Halloween (1978), Of Men, Morality and Microwaves (concerning The Virgin Spring and the different versions of Last House on the Left), and Don't Tell Them What You Saw, which concerned the two film versions of Diabolique.

Ahead in 2010, I have two new film books in the pipeline, as well as some other exciting appearances and events coming up. More announcements on all that will follow soon. Here on the blog, I intend to launch another directorial retrospective, and will continue looking back to over 50 years of genre TV programming.

I hope that you'll stick around, and also that 2010 will be as exciting, as fun (and busy...) as 2009 turned out to be in these parts. As always, thank you for reading, thank you for commenting, and thanks for coming back to see what's new. To quote Dirk Diggler, "I'm gonna keep trying if you keep trying..."

Happy New Year!
JKM

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: District 9 (2009)

In 1915, Franz Kafka's now-famous novella, The Metamorphosis was first published. The narrative revolved around a character named Gregor Samsa -- an average man of little power or influence -- who felt beholden financially to his employer, a sales company called "The Firm."

Well, powerless Everyman, Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had inexplicably transformed into an "insekt." A very large insect...but with human emotions.

Over time, Gregor began to witness his humanity (his language; his appetites; his understanding...) slip away as the insect within took over. Like famous Brundlefly, Kafka's hapless, helpless hero was an insect who dreamed he was a man.

In Kafka's literary work, Gregor Samsa was dismissed and betrayed by his family and completed his transformation to bug (or "vermin") isolated...alone in his room; a dark secret. Finally, his family did away with Gregor all together so it could move on and flourish financially. Economic welfare was prized over loyalty to family. Over human decency itself.

In short, The Metamorphosis was a parable about the human condition as Kafka viewed that condition in the early 20th century; and -- in particular -- one man's place in his nation's economy and power hierarchy.

From stories such as The Metamorphosis (and also from the novel, The Trial), scholars, literary critics and historians have derived the eponym "Kafka-esque."

Today, we all have a pretty good understanding of what that term implies (especially if you've ever stood in line at the DMV...). To be legitimately "Kafka-esque," a work of art must concern the impossibility of individual liberty or freedom inside a bloated State of enormous reach, power and influence. Kafka-esque stories are often surreal and feature bitter ironies (not to mention circular logic, especially on the part of the State's "representatives.") Finally we equate with the term Kafka-esque an impenetrable and inhuman maze of bureaucracy, one from which there is no escape or respite for the individual.

Simply stated, I have never witnessed a more imaginative, more stirring, or more dramatic Kafka-esque vision (and quasi-re-telling of Metamorphosis) than Neil Blomkamp's genre film and parable for our 21st century days, District 9 (2009).

The film concerns the arrival of a massive alien spaceship in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the manner in which the extra terrestrial passengers on that ship -- giant insects called "Prawns" --are quickly marginalized and segregated from the human population in a slum, dubbed District 9.

That district, that ghetto, is to be torn down by global corporation MNU (think Blackwater or Haliburton...) and be replaced by Sanctuary City, a new ghetto that one MNU official readily admits is the equivalent of "a concentration camp."

District 9's central character, a human named Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is a true descendent of Kafka's Gregor Samsa. He is a simple, ultimately powerless man who works for the impersonal -- nay imperial -- corporation, MNU. Van der Merwe has been promoted beyond his competency level (because of cronyism/nepotism) and, on one outing to District 9 to obtain waivers for the Prawn relocation, is exposed to a strange alien "fluid" that begins to transform Wikus --just like his Kafkaesque predecessor -- into a giant insect.

The State, here represented by MNU, comes to consider van de Merwe "The most valuable business artifact on Earth" because his new alien DNA allows him to operate powerful Prawn weaponry. MNU -- commanded by van der Merwe's father-in-law -- wants to take ownership of Wikus and surgically exploit him for his Prawn/human DNA. MNU even concocts the false charge that van der Mewe is a dangerous (and infectious...) sexual deviant...and sells that lie to the gullible mass media to assure that none of van der Merwe's fellow men in Johannesburg will come to the fugitive's rescue.

So, a once "average" man has become prized possession of the State and a scapegoat of the State simultaneously, and what he wants and desires for himself no longer matters. Instead, Wikus finds himself an outcast, one separated from his wife and cut adrift from his fellow humans in the slum of District 9. In the film's haunting final shot, we see the Kafka-esque "metamorphosis" completed, and Wikus is now an overgrown insect fashioning metal flowers out of trash...a haunting reminder of his love for his wife and of his lost humanity.

When I first heard about District 9 last summer, the film's premise sounded to me uncomfortably similar to a movie I reviewed on this blog recently, Alien Nation (1988). In both films, a large extraterrestrial population emigrates to Earth aboard a vast mother ship, is treated with ugly racial prejudice (and given a slang name, whether it be "Slag" or "Prawn.") And in both stories, the aliens are assimilated into indigenous cultures with "human" names, whether it be "Sam Francisco" or "Christopher Johnson." Lastly, both films involve a substance with the capability to mutate DNA: the dangerous drug of the Newcomers in Alien Nation and the Prawn fluid in District 9.


Yet about half-way through my viewing of District 9, I understood that Blomkamp's film actually has far more in common with another celebrated sci-fi movie of the 1980s: RoboCop (1987). You may recall that RoboCop was actually a blistering satire of the Reagan Era, not merely an action film. The Verhoeven film depicted a future United States in which Big Business called all the shots; in which the mass media was insipid to the point of lunacy, and in which every public institution -- even police departments -- had been "privatized" to be run as a business (for profit). RoboCop was a nightmare vision of Reagan's laissez-faire dogma run amuck, extrapolated into the near-future. Why, RoboCop even featured gas-guzzling, over-sized vehicles the likes of which we've all seen! They weren't called SUVs though; they were SUXs. But the point, oddly enough, was that a machine -- RoboCop himself -- was more human than the corporations and avaricious, backstabbing executives of his world.

What I mean to suggest here is that the makers of RoboCop in 1987 gazed at the world around them and made -- admittedly from a standard action formula -- a parable that critiqued the American culture on virtually every front imaginable. Far from being a slavish copy of Alien Nation, District 9 undertakes the same difficult task, only for us, here...now. For the first decade of the twenty-first century, just ending. Careful writers and critics have noted the many similarities between the film's District 9 slum and Capetown during the Apartheid era, but the film's critique goes much deeper, even, than that specific historical context. The critique is...global.

For instance, District 9 aggressively takes on corporate cronyism. As I noted above, Wikus is not really competent to be dealing with alien life forms; but rather was hired because of family ties, and does a "heck of a job," just like poor old Brownie did after Katrina in 2005.


Racism is also a major issue. The Prawns are essentially termed lazy by employees at MNU. We are actually told they possess "no initiative," a common (and racist) refrain against Africans and African-Americans. Accordingly, humans treat the aliens shabbily, allowing them to be exploited by Nigerian profiteers who sell food (cat food...) to them at exorbitant prices. Even Prawn children are deemed less worthy than human children, and there is a disturbing scene in the film during which Wikus and his MNU team thoughtlessly (and with great amusement...) knowingly abort several Prawn hatchlings. Because the Prawns aren't human in appearance (read: non-white;), it is easier to disregard and destroy them.

District 9 also takes on the corporate media and the abundantly false memes it often pushes at the expense of truth. Specifically, the JHB Network terms Wikus a sex criminal, and a firefight in District 9 miraculously becomes "a terrorist bombing!" In real life, we've had reports of death panels, FEMA camps, terrorist fist bumps, the War on Christmas, the trenchcoat mafia, "she said yes!"(Cassie Bernall) and other proven falsehoods propagated on 24-hour news channels without a lot by way of official retraction.
Why this week, Mary Matalin went on TV and said that George Bush inherited the 9/11 attacks from Bill Clinton, when in reality the attacks occured after Bush had been Commander-in-Chief for more than eight months. The media's mission in many such instances: to frighten us; to tell us who are "enemies" are so we can fear them. So we can destroy them (and then take their resources with impunity and not feel bad about it...)

We also get commentary in District 9 about the questionable policy of governments outsourcing military jobs to corporations and private security firms (again, think about unaccountable Blackwater and the company's history of abuse in the occupation of Iraq). Many Americans believe Blackwater was forced out of Iraq following a massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in 2007. Guess what? Blackwater just changed names to Xe Services and is still operating there. In District 9, MNU is the iron-hand forcing segregation, relocation, genocide...and secret weapons research.

And of course, there is commentary on absurd bureaucracy in Blomkamp'sfilm as well: Wikus must acquire Prawn signatures before evicting the aliens from District 9, a ridiculous notion given that the Prawns are incredibly strong, nine-foot-tall insectoids. Basically, he's asking creatures from another planet permission to put them in concentration camps. It is patently absurd. And, in the tradition of Kafka, utterly surreal.

A blazing, incendiary film, District 9 takes a long hard look at the world we've built in the new millennium and concludes that it is, finally, in the truest sense...Kafkaesque. Wikus -- who was no more than an insect to MNU to begin with -- literally transforms into an insect. Our species, the film seems to acknowledge, has truly jumped the shark.

Accordingly, District 9 implicitly asks the question: how can we expect humans to be decent to aliens when humans are so rotten to each other? When they keep their neighbor's children starving? When they send businesses to foreign lands to exploit resources? When the truth is lost and partisanship and "spin" replaces it? When the bottom line is more important than morality? Make no mistake, District 9 concerns segregation and the circumstances in South Africa in the 1980s, but the film is also about much more than that: it is a universal critique of humanity on the precipice; of global humanity as it exists today.

By pointed contrast -- as we see -- the Prawns at least seem to believe in traditional "human" virtues such as family...and loyalty. Even patience, actually. Christopher Johnson loves his young son and has toiled for twenty years to escape the slum in District 9 by repairing a buried spaceship. When he learns that his people are being subjected to Nazi-like medical experiments by MNU, Christopher's first thought is to bring help; of saving his people. Wikus's first thought when transformed into an insect is for himself: for getting cured so he can resume his life. And when Wikus seems to finally develop loyalty for Christopher Johnson and his son, we must ask an important question: is it because his humanity has vanished? Is it because he has become more "Prawn" now -- and thus more noble -- than man?

In terms of visuals, District 9 is a highly dynamic film. The aliens aren't what I could "realistic," per se (kind of hoary in concept, actually...), but how they appear in the frame, in the compositions themselves, is incredibly realistic. The camera doesn't make a big deal of the Prawns; doesn't focus on them, or even center them.

Instead, the aliens appear in the background of shots; in a soup line behind the main character, for instance; almost as part of the landscape itself. The effect is stunning; our eyes take the creatures for completely "real." I haven't seen Avatar yet, but I can state with confidence that the visual integration of the Prawns into the real life (live action...) settings of District 9 is jaw-dropping.

I also enjoyed the fact that director Blomkamp encodes his critique of modern, globalized humanity in many of the visuals he crafts. For instance, during a military raid by MNU, Blomkamp cuts to a "gun cam," a first-person-shooter-style perspective that closely resembles contemporary video games like Call to Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That's what this raid really is to the hired guns of MNU: a game in which they get to kill Prawns. One character (the villain of the piece) even rants about how he loves to kill Prawns, and the video-game-style action sequences reflect this lack of humanity on the part of the soldiers.

The mockumentary approach utilized often by District 9 -- consisting of "B-roll" footage of interviewees, fake archive footage of the mothership's arrival 20 years earlier, and "live" newsfeeds -- also contributes to the film's critique of modern man. We know what is happening to Wikus; even as interviewees make blatantly false statements, or news feeds pop-up with BREAKING NEWS ALERTS of the most dramatic (and incorrect) variety.

In some corners, District 9 has been criticized because of the film's final act. Basically, the climax involves a sustained (and dramatic) shoot-out between Wikus (in an armed, Prawn robot suit...) and the forces of MNU. The problem, according to some reviewers, is that all of the interesting satire and social commentary goes away, and the film degenerates into mere "action."

Personally, I didn't feel this was the case, and I can point precisely to the reason why: emotional investment. By the time of the final, lengthy gun battle in District 9, I felt heavily invested in the survival of Christopher Johnson and his son. The gunfight was about their survival; about their escape, and -- at least for me -- there was real suspense in that equation. Up to that point, District 9 had been so hardcore, so viciously true to its critiques of human nature, that I expected something terrible to happen. And in the vicious gunfight -- where Prawns are just inhuman targets to be blown apart -- tragedy was certainly a possibility. And the final shots of the film: involving Wikus and the metal/trash flower sculpture, are positively lyrical (and on point, thematically).

Way back in 1915, Franz Kafka worried about how the individual could possibly survive -- let alone flourish -- within an aggressive, overreaching establishment. He feared governments, judiciaries, and yes, corporations. District 9 is a clever realization and updating of Kafka's vision; one created with the very symbols Kafka himself deployed (particularly the metamorphosis of man into insect...). The result is a film that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with genre landrmarks such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and RoboCop (1987). All these films (popular entertainments, miraculously...) hold up a mirror to the audience. All of them ask us to look at the world we've made; and what might become of that world if we don't change trajectory. District 9 is pretty hard on the human race (but then, Planet of the Apes didn't exactly let us off the hook, either...) but maybe Blomkamp's film also serves as a wake-up call.

Are you a man? Or just a bug underfoot, ready to be stamped out by agendas much larger than your own?