Archive for Sharlto Copley

The Two Tiers

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 20, 2013 by dcairns

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Neil Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM has the same strengths and weaknesses as his DISTRICT 9, which at least shows he doesn’t absolutely need Peter Jackson sitting on his shoulder to pull off a scifi splatterfest that yokes interesting ideas to the mayhem. I’m not aware of another FX movie this season that preaches in favour of universal health care, nor one with such a tasty design sense — GRAVITY is a more beautiful film by far, and UNDER THE SKIN a more peculiar one, but if you’ve been starved of strong bloody mayhem since Verhoeven departed Hollywood, as I feel I have, this movie will certainly give you your dismemberment fix.

The basic premise of a divided society has been a staple of SF movies since METROPOLIS, and conceptually all Blomkamp adds is that, rather that sinking the proles beneath the Earth, he elevates the elite to a space station. And ties the results to modern American life as Romero did in LAND OF THE DEAD. He also equips the 1% with domestic med-bays which are able to heal virtually any injury short of death. This technology is apparently free, which begs the question why the top dogs guard it so jealously — one of a number of logical flaws which you have to overlook in order to enjoy Matt Damon’s grand guignol suffering, the Peckinpah wet-dream carnage, or the lovely and often original production design.

There’s also Blomkamp’s trademark shakicam, which at times gives the impression that he’s rested his lens on a washing machine as it hits the spin cycle. This inevitably costs him coherence, and there’s a crucial bit of business involving a grenade during the final hero-villain scrap which just isn’t discernible at all. You can figure out afterwards what happened, but having to re-frame and re-edit on the filmmaker’s behalf does take you out of the movie. Not many things take me out of a movie short of an armed escort, but that does.

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The sheer excess of poor Damon’s brutalizing made me wonder if I wasn’t seeing another kind of Verhoeven homage — the Killer Christ Figure (Robocop walks on water at the end of ROBOCOP — in order to stab a guy in the throat). The metallic exoskeleton he’s bolted into is like an articulated crucifix, and his other injuries include, if I recall correctly, not one but two stabs to the side, and an internal crown of thorns in the form of a direct-to-the-brain data upload of poisonously encrypted information. I don’t know what the biblical equivalent of the radiation overdose is, but we do know the Messiah gave off some kind of energy when he was reborn, because how else do we explain his bloody wrappings turning into photographic paper and capturing his image? And don’t give me all that Renaissance forgery bit.

But to return to the Passion of Max Da Costa — I dig how the orangey shanty-town sprawl of LA represents the have-nots, while the have’s live in a star-shaped space station whose interior looks like Beverly Hills. The metaphor is pretty clear, and if the film is not about Earth VS Space but about a divided America, then it’s presumably about Obamacare?

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I do think it’s a shame that the wideshot of the skyscrapers, fantasticated with platforms and extensions added on willy-nilly to deal with SOYLENT GREEN levels of overpopulation, never reappear after the establishing sequence — what a great setting for an action sequence those could be, with characters parkouring through the vertical barrio and leaping from tower to tower like Rick Baker in the DeLaurentiis KONG.

Fiona wanted to know what Jodie Foster was trying to do with her accent. I don’t rightly know. I think it’s a waste of the unrivaled naturalism she displayed as a kid, to see her so mannered and self-conscious, but I don’t know if it was a deliberate effect she was going for. Fiona also felt it was a shame that bad guy Sharlto Copley, who gives a very zestful performance, didn’t have a single line that wasn’t a crusty cliché. She’s not wrong. That we still enjoyed the film must be because enough interesting ideas and images survived the journey through Blomkamp’s mental mixmaster — if he could trust himself to slow down a little bit, we’d really have something.

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Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

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Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

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Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.