Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's all in the execution

As part of my ongoing effort to get around to seeing the movies everyone is talking about … eventually … (not to mention watching Netflix DVD’s as often as possible to justify paying for that service, said justification not exactly going gangbusters since I wanted to average 1 a month and am currently at 8 for the year) I saw District 9 over the weekend. Belated verdict: not a bad way at all to spend a Saturday night, especially not for me personally, since I enjoy thought-provoking science-fiction at least as much as the next guy (and usually quite a bit more).

I wanna hold your tarsus and/or dactyla
There are a multitude of different things I could highlight about the movie. I could simply note the fact that it ended up serving as a surprisingly effective supplement to Spooktoberfest 2010 thanks to some unabashed horror elements integral to the second act plot developments. I could wax on and on about the utter lack of easy genre classification which I, frankly, respect the hell out of, because the movie starts out as a mock-documentary soft sci-fi allegory about society and racism, and then becomes downright Cronenbergian in a nightmare descent into xenomorphosis coupled with the nightmare fuel of remorseless faceless medical experimenters, and then shifts gears yet again into full-bore high-octane action shoot-em-up popcorn flick mode before coming full circle with the mock-doc style and emotionally compelling ending. And all of that sounds like an irreconcilable mess when I tick down the list like that but actually it totally works. Or, once again, I could notch another entry in the Everything Is Different Now Series and confess that the child-in-peril subplot which escalates throughout the movie’s climax fully got its hooks into both me and my wife, despite the following factors: (a) in my wife’s case, at least, she wasn’t even fully watching the movie at first but got totally sucked in just by sitting on the couch while it was on; and (b) the child in question is one of the CGI aliens who look like totally inhuman anthropomorphic bugs and speak solely in subtitled clicks; and (c) I’m fairly certain the child-in-question never even gets a name, and is only ever referred to by one of the main aliens as “my son.” So apparently Everything Is Different Now works on a purely conceptual level. Which, wow.

But instead of going down any of those roads I want to touch on one of my other pet theories, one which I was pleasantly surprised to find District 9 was able to overcome. I think I may have mentioned this before, so I’ll try to keep the background brief. (Ha, ha, no, really.) I’m fascinated by the function of villains in narratives, because it’s so hard to do them well. Ultimately all villains are plot engines, personifications of the conflicts without which there is no drama and no narrative. It probably says something very telling about me that I tend to prefer entertainments with literal villains than with more abstract conflicts, but that’s armchair self-analysis for another time. So given that villains tend to act and react and be dealt with all in accordance to the dictates of the plot, they tend to occupy a fairly narrow area where they can manifest as credible threats but still ultimately can be overcome by the protagonist (leaving aside downbeat endings and such). Where a lot of depictions of villainy go wrong, I posit, is that they focus so much on the credibility of the threat, in the form of the villain doing awful, horrible, hateful things, that eventually it reaches the point where the protagonist’s eventual triumph and/or the villain’s final defeat isn’t enough to balance the scales. I’ve had this experience several times, where I’m reading a book or watching a movie and thinking to myself, as I observe the villain committing yet another heinous act that raises the stakes of the overarching story, “There is no way that I, the reader, personally, will feel sufficient catharsis by the end of this.” And partly this is because in my own imagination I am fairly bloodthirsty about karmic redress, but partly I think it comes down to lazy writing. Yeah, I’m calling you out, actual published novelists and screenwriters with movie deals!

Anyway, District 9 features a character who is the commanding officer of the paramilitary security force who are the heavies of the piece, and the guy is an absolutely irredeemable Symbol of Man’s Inhumanity To Man. Right about the point that the human protagonist is making a daring assault on the corporation that owns the security force, and using alien technology to electro-shred mercenaries left and right, but never quite managing to blow up the commanding officer, I felt pretty sure that particular villain was going to make it all the way to the end of the movie perpetrating more and more heinous shenanigans without ever getting his proper comeuppance. Let me clarify at this point that, for most Evil Symbol characters, I do not consider a quick death to be proper comeuppance. At the very least, if I’m really going to derive any satisfaction from a heinous fictional villain’s demise, said demise has to be something that the villain sees coming and is deeply disturbed about in his final moments, and is preferably slow or at the very least excruciatingly painful. In short, there must be suffering. But I didn’t imagine I was going to get that from District 9.

For a while actually I thought I wasn’t going to get anything at all, and that one of the indignities (forgivable, because it’s a parable about indignities, but still) would be that the C.O. survives through the closing credits. Barring that, I figured he’d catch a bullet in the brain in the climactic gunfight. However, neither of those things happens. Instead, just when the C.O. is about to shoot the human protagonist, he finds himself surrounded by feral aliens who have come to defend the human. The C.O. warns them off with his pistol, but gradually it dawns on him that there are more aliens than he has bullets left. He still shoots a couple of them, hoping to scare the rest of them off, but they just pile on him and then rip him screaming limb from limb. Now that’s comeuppance!

There’s an ongoing debate in our modern society about whether or not entertainments which depict actions and ideas appealing to people’s darker natures end up inherently glorifying what should be unacceptable, or if they provide a healthy, arguably indispensable, release valve for those impulses which remain unacceptable in the real world outside of constructed fictions. Clearly I fall in the latter camp. I wish that it were as simple as identifying something as wrong and then finding that that automatically leads to rejecting it from my mind completely and forevermore, but I’m not wired that way. So I’m thankful for the movie magic that gives me other options.

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