Sunday, March 28, 2010

Paintball, Part the First - With Apologies to David Foster Wallace, Wherever He is

Striking thing (b) turns out to be an illusion, one not unlike the illusion I'd had about the comparative easiness of golf from watching golf on TV before I'd actually ever tried to play golf.
- David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

Right now it's Sunday, 11:08 PM Central Daylight Time, and I'm sitting at my computer keyboard trying to summon up all the moments of triumph, pain (often literal), and embarrassment that accompanied my foray, the afternoon prior, into the world of amateur paintball. (1)

I was invited to participate in this gathering of paintball enthusiasts because it was being held as part of an all-day bachelor party for a friend, whom I generally refer to as Senior. (2) And so, just before 11am on Saturday morning, I drove my car onto Highway 77 headed south toward Lakeville, MN (3), and the MN Pro Paintball Grounds.

After a brief hiccup with directions, I find myself turning onto a dirt road that advertises the patch to MN Pro Paintball, and am almost immediately presented with a sign containing a stern warning that, if I do not have business along this road, I may be considered a trespasser and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. (4) Undaunted, I drive down the bumpy dirt road, eventually finding my way to the parking lot and the group of men waiting for their chance to play paintball.

The group of guys standing around the parking lot can be roughly divided into two groups; those who know Senior himself and are friends with him, who tend to be older, and those who know Senior mainly through his son JR, and who tend to be closer to JR's age. As I get out of the car and join the growing scrum of weekend warriors, it's clear that there's another broad division that can be made: those who've played paintball before, all of whom have their own camouflage apparel and some of whom have their own compressed-air paintball guns, and those who haven't, who are dressed in various grungy-looking outfits ranging from jeans and a leather jacket to sweatpants. (5)

The invitation asked us to arrive between 11:00 and 11:30 AM, and since it is almost exactly 11:30 AM, I fear I am holding up the party. It turns out, though, that neither the best man nor the groom-to-be himself have arrived yet, so we all stand around in the late morning chill and shoot the shit.

One young man in particular catches my attention quickly. He's not someone I've met before, and ends up being a friend of JR's. What attracts my attention is that he's already dressed head-to-toe in the traditional forest camouflage colors of the Army Rangers, and while we wait he opens the trunk of his car to reveal his own paintball gun as well as an entire case of extra paintball pellets, purchased at the 'pro shop' run by the same guys who run the grounds -- apparently it is cheaper to purchase your ammunition in the 'pro shop' than to wait until buying extra rounds at the site. This guy (whose name I never do get straignt) encourages the rest of us to get together in groups of four to purchase an additional case and split the 2000 balls between us; apparently the rental package covers only 200 rounds of ammunition, which this guy warns us probably won't last very long.

Eventually the best man, named Bruce, and Senior himself arrive, and the group of us head down to a convenient group of picnic tables to hear the safety briefing and complete our rental packages.

(1) - Anyone reading this who is quite well-read may recognize this as an homage, of sorts, to the opening of David Foster Wallace's essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which begins in the Fort Lauderdale coffee shop while he's waiting for a flight to take him home to Chicago after having just completed a seven-night Caribbean Luxury Cruise on which he was sent by the editors of Harper's magazine. Wallace's essay is one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever, and while I'm certain there's no chance I can match it for length (it runs over 100 pages in his book of published essays, the book taking its title from the title of this particular essay, and when I recently decided to record it as an amateur audiobook as a gift for a friend, the audio ran nearly four full hours) and little chance I can match it for clarity and insight (you'll have to read it for yourself, as there's no chance I can do the thing justice in any kind of summary that would fit between parenthesis on a blog), I couldn't help but be reminded of it time and again in the past day-and-a-half or so since leaving the paintball grounds. If Wallace's consciousness survives in some afterlife that's aware of events on Earth (Wallace committed suicide just over a year-and-a-half ago), I hope he's at least a bit tickled by the homage.

(2) - The friend's actual name is John Corbett, Senior, which distinguishes him from his son, John Corbett, Junior, the latter whom organized and sent out the invitations to the paintball extravaganza. Those of us who refer to Senior as 'Senior' are generally those who've met him through one of his gaming hobbies, either D&D Miniatures or something similar; his family and 'older' friends call him 'Jack', since Senior doesn't like to be called 'John'. Senior's son also doesn't like to be called 'John', nor does he like to be called 'Junior', so we refer to him as 'JR'.

(3) - Lakeville is one of the well-to-do exurbs of the Twin Cities, built up by developers to accommodate upper-middle class white people fleeing as far away from the urban center as they can get while still being able to commute to their jobs within the inner ring of Twin Cities suburbs, or possibly downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul itself. The paintball ground is not the most apposite symbol of the odd combinatorial sense of privilege and fear that drives people to live here (at least, those who haven't lived here their entire lives), for reasons that will become clear later; the best symbol of the kind of people who choose to live out here would be the Celebration Church, a mega-church affiliated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship and thus Pentecostal. The church building faces Interstate 35 and has a huge, ornate facade, looking oddly like a casino as I drive past looking for my exit.

(4) - It turns out that it's not the paintball guys who are responsible for the signage; they lease the grounds from the owners, who run a tree farm on the site, and the large quantity of pine trees on the site leads me to believe (though I never actually get confirmation) that the signage is meant to deter those people who'd poach Christmas trees from the site.

(5) - The latter outfit is part of my own apparel; JR noted in his e-mail invitation that one shouldn't wear anything one thought highly of, so I'm decked out in an old pair of black sweatpants and a grey cotton sweatshirt that boldly reads "U.S. Polo Association" along the chest, the much quieter label behind the collar, however, shows that the shirt itself was made in Pakistan. My only concession to camouflage is the forest-green shirt by Faded Glory (a Wal-Mart imprint, purchased a few years earlier in Kansas City and no longer really fitting) that mostly covers the sweatshirt. As it turns out, sweatpants were not a terribly intelligent choice of apparel for playing paintball on damp fields covered in dead grass exposed by melted winter snow, of which more later.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Am Not Metal

Frost giants are extraordinarily metal, and being metal is always good.

Interestingly, slaying frost giants is also metal--even more metal than being a frost giant. And therein lies a great insight into the nature of metal.

- Zak S., "Playing D&D With Porn Stars"

If there's anything metal about playing Dungeons and Dragons, it would have to be running a home-brew campaign for a table consisting almost entirely of female porn stars. So for starters, bravo to you, Zak S.

I, on the other hand, play a lot of D&D with people who aren't porn stars, though one of the groups I play with is a group I've been gaming with for nearly 20 years now. That's still probably not metal, but I suspect in some circles it has to at least be praiseworthy.

The thing that convinced me of my non-metalness, though, wasn't that I don't look up from my character sheet and see Justine Joli on the other side of the table, but rather because my D&D character has changed over the past year-and-a-half since I told you all about him last.

Yes, it's another post about my D&D character: run for your lives.

A brief recap: Rennal is an elf whose childhood and adolescence** was spent as the psychic plaything of alien intelligences, who, when they finally tired of him, broke him to the point where he killed his father. The elf community who tried him for this crime did not believe him when he claimed to have been manipulated by these aliens, and they forced him to take the surname Maiavar as a sign of his outcast state.

** - If the 3.5 Player's Handbook is to be believed, elves become adults just as humans are reaching their maximum possible 'venerable' age.

At the time I wrote about Rennal, he had just learned how to cast fireball. A being who'd been manipulated by soulless alien intelligence for as long as a human lifetime, and as a result had been cut off from his family and culture, has just learned how to cast an explosive ball of flame.

That, I'd think, has the potential to be extremely metal.

As it turned out, the composition of the party aided him in this. The party also contained a druid who, at that time, was focusing on summoning magic. Another character was a beguiler -- a sort of illusionist/trickster who focuses on mind-manipulation, but who also has a reasonably large stock of utility magic. With summoning, illusions, and utility magic all handled by other party members, Rennal was thus free to focus on being a pure 'blaster mage'; throwing fire around like it was...well...water. In one particular adventure, when the party was ambushed by a group of frost giants who started tossing down rocks from a snowy overhang, Rennal responded by effectively re-enacting the 'napalm in the morning' scene from Apocolypse Now, lighting up the entire ridgeline with fire, then following up with specific-target fire spells to drive the giants into submission. Given the quote at the intro, if Rennal had a Crowning Moment of Metal, that probably would have been it.

Time passed, though, as it always does, and the party changed.

The beguiler left the party, specifically because the beguiler's player finally got tired of having to deal with another player whose playstyle he didn't appreciate, so he left the campaign. The druid slowly changed over from summoning magic to his own category of blaster magic, focusing on the two spells he remembered from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as being 'awesome' damaging spells.

Rennal has also continued to grow in power since that time. Now, however, he uses his vast arcane might to serve as the team's hypersonic transport and magical item identifier. Oh, and he throws the occasional buff spell on the party fighters to keep the pressure off the 'back ranks'.

If I were metal, I wouldn't care that the party has specific needs that aren't being met and that another character is horning in on my 'schtick' as the bringer of nuclear fire; I'd just go on as before, proving again and again that Rennal has the biggest balls of fire on the planet. But I'm not. I'm giving up the spotlight, letting others have their moments in the sun, and only occasionally showing hints of the unbridled might I could have had, had I been as selfish as the other players at my table.

No, I am not metal. And that's part of the problem.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #1

I don't think there will be a return journey, Mr. Frodo.
- Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin)

#1 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004)

One way to tell whether I liked a movie, and I think this is probably true of most people, is to ask how many times I saw the movie in the theater. It's not a perfect measure -- two of my all-time favorites, "The Princess Bride" and "Casablanca" were not seen in the theater (though at least in the latter case, I have an excuse, since I was born about 25 years after the initial theatrical run), but for movies of recent vintage especially, when I have ample opportunity to just wait until the DVD comes out, even if it's a movie I'd otherwise be interested in, it's a mark of some merit that I'm convinced to see the thing more than once in the theater.

Interestingly enough, four of the movies on this list were not seen in the theater at all. Four others were seen once. Only two were seen more than once:

  • WALL-E, which I saw three times, and

  • this movie, which I saw at least four times in its opening week.

By this measure, it's arguable whether WALL-E or daylight finishes second.

Why I liked it

I could recap the things I said in the capsule reviews of the other two LotR movies on this list, but rather than do that, I'll stick with just the things about this movie that struck home for me.

- Bernard Hill as King Theoden of Rohan really comes into his own in this movie, from his question to Aragorn near the start of the movie ("Tell me, why should we ride to the aid of those who did not come to ours?"), his reversal of his own question when Gondor does finally call for aid (through Merry's climbing skill and trickery), and his speech before his troops before their charge into battle on the Pellennor Fields. The best moment, though, the moment where it's clear that he's chosen a warrior's fate and will bring all under his command to that fate or they will not be warriors, is his comment to his lieutenant shortly after Aragorn leaves to try to recruit the spirits of the mountain to join his ranks:

Gamling: Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.
Theoden: No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.

It is my belief that the truest test of honor is the willingness to spend oneself in a necessary cause, even if that expenditure might not bring about success. Only cowards seek battle merely because they're sure they can win.

- David Wenham as Faramir also gets a great turn in this movie. Short-changed a bit in the screenplay for Two Towers (as noted in that recap, in the books, Faramir does resist the lure of the Ring when it's presented to him, making him Aragorn's equal in this; in the movie, Faramir has to have the consequences of claiming the Ring demonstrated to him at Osgiliath before he comes to his senses and lets the hobbits go), he makes up for it here by showing both honor and ultimate loyalty, taking his men on a suicidal charge against the orcs occupying Osgiliath simply because his father orders him to do so, and knowing that his father seems to want him dead.

Where does my allegiance lie if not here?

I'd like to think that the 'reunited at the foot of the cliffs leading to the Fireswamp' scene between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride is a call-out to the burgeoning romance between Faramir and Eowyn, which is given short shrift in the books, but is clear given their behavior when Aragorn, after being made King, puts the two of them together in lordship over Rohan. The movies, sadly, don't treat this any better, but on the other hand, since they were already cutting vast stretches of the books, adding in new material would have been profoundly difficult, I understand.

- The 'big themes' are more visible at the end of the tale.

Way back in the initial recap, when discussing the critical backlash against the trilogy of late, I quoted a fellow who claimed that the LotR series didn't really have anything to say about larger themes, but was just a story about elves and hobbits. I pointed out a couple of items there to try to refute his point, but it's here, at the end of the tale, where you can really see some of the bigger themes, such as...

Ambition, while not evil in itself, can make one into a tool of evil

We, the children of the Reagan era and the internet bubble, have been told pretty much all our lives that if we want something, we need to strive and strive hard for it, and never let anybody get in the way of your goals. The difference between a champion and a loser is that the champion wants it more. Blah, blah, blah.

This trilogy teaches something very different: every character whose ambition extends beyond himself fails to achieve that ambition, and most come to a bad end:

  • Saruman, though it's clearer in the books than in the films, joins with Sauron to gain knowledge as well as power; he ends up dead at the start of the third film, impaled on his own water wheel. (He survives in the books, but goes on to orchestrate the Scouring of the Shire -- the movies are able to skip that (save for a few harrowing insights that Frodo gleans from Galadriel) by killing him off instead.)
  • Wormtongue's ambition is to gain influence, power, and comfort by serving Saruman, specifically in subverting Rohan; he wants Eowyn's hand as payment for his labors. He ends up alive, but utterly friendless; Eowyn forever lost to him.

  • Denethor's ambition is to rule the lands of Men in the absence of a king; Sauron uses Aragorn's very existence as a poison pill, not to get Denethor to join, but rather to leave Gondor weak and unable to resist Mordor. Denethor also believes that bringing the Ring to Gondor will turn the tide in Gondor's favor, but he refuses to see (as Faramir does at Osgiliath) that the Ring will doom rather than save Gondor. He ends up having sent both sons to their deaths, though one survives, barely, and goes mad realizing that he nearly burned that survivor on a pyre. He flings himself from the highest point of Minas Tirith, presumably to his death.
  • Boromir's ambition is the only one that can truly be described as noble; he wants to preserve Gondor from darkness, and believes that fulfilling his father's mission and bringing the Ring to Gondor will accomplish that. The Ring still uses that ambition to corrupt him, to the point where he nearly kills Frodo and takes the Ring from him. In the end, Boromir realizes his error, but still pays the ultimate price; he dies trying to save Merry and Pippin, and fails, yet his distraction allows Frodo and Sam to slip away with the Ring, keeping it out of the hands of Saruman's Uruk-Hai.

Nearly every other character begins with a simple ambition, if any. Sam wants only to serve Frodo, at least until the end of the quest, when his chief ambition becomes to marry Rosie (he does)**. Merry and Pippin join on a lark, participate in mighty events, and return to the Shire as heroes. Aragorn resists the draw of the kingship of Gondor again and again until finally forced to stand up against Sauron and fight; he, of course, ends up with everything at the end. Theoden, after his rescue from the grip of Saruman, wants only to find a good death; he does, in the arms of the person he loves best in the world.

** - The role of rejection of overweening ambition in resisting the lure of the Ring is even clearer in the books -- in the movie, when Sam rescues Frodo from the tower at the edge of Mordor, he hesitates when handing the Ring back to Frodo. In the books, it's made clear that Sam is having a vision -- the Ring is attempting to seduce Sam with a vision of Samwise the Great, mightly hero. Sam, of course, knowing he's not a mighty hero, finally shakes off the vision and is able to give the Ring back to Frodo.

Frodo's case is interesting, though -- at first, he merely wants to be of service to Gandalf, carrying the Ring to Bree where he is to meet Gandalf in secret. When Gandalf doesn't show, he carries the Ring onward to Rivendell at Aragorn's behest, then volunteers to carry the Ring further to Mordor once it's clear that no one else will carry out the task at hand. Yet in the end, the Ring seduces him, and he succumbs to his ambition to own the Ring right on the doorstep of its destruction; only a greater ambition to own the Ring than Frodo's own can take the Ring from him, resulting in its destruction anyway. But both Frodo and Bilbo have been tainted by their association with the Ring, and both end up traveling with the elves and Gandalf away from Middle-Earth, though the departure is portrayed as positive for both hobbits.

Even the very wise cannot see all ends

Gandalf even has a line to this effect in the first film, and the obvious pay-off for this line comes once Frodo has succumbed to the lure of the Ring; only Gollum, who could have been killed many times before if rasher heads had their way, ends up ensuring the Ring's destruction, though not in any way he intends.

The same theme echoes throughout the series, though. Theoden thinks Rohan is alone when resisting Saruman's forces at Helm's Deep, only to be shocked by the arrival of elvish archers to honor the ancient alliance between elves and men. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas think they are about to face Saruman in Fangorn Forest, but discover that instead, this White Wizard is Gandalf, returned from certain death. Eowyn, finding while in camp that she will neither achieve glory (as her uncle Theoden orders her to remain behind to rule Rohan after his death) nor Aragorn's love (who still carries a torch -- and a necklace -- for Arwen), steals away with the army to find her own death; she ends up finding both glory (in slaying the Witch-King) and love (with Faramir), as well as being able to comfort her uncle in his last moments of life.

There is a lot going on in this trilogy, and anyone who can't see it is willfully refusing to see it. I may not be any kind of film expert, but Jackson's (and his collaborators') achievement is amazing, and the trilogy as a whole and this final chapter in it in particular is my favorite since the turn of the calendar in 2001.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #2

Autopilot: On the Axiom, you will survive.
Captain MacCrea: I don't
want to survive. I want to live!

#2 - WALL-E (2008)

You have to wonder, sometimes, if people really understand the things they're seeing.

Take, for instance, Pixar Animation Studios, the makers of Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and this movie.

Every one of these movies was well-received. Every one of these movies had a sizable 'kid' audience (though in 'Up's case, there was some complaining that the movie wasn't nearly as kid-friendly as they'd come to expect of a Pixar film); as if to underscore the point, every one of Pixar's film with the exceptions of Up and The Incredibles was rated 'G' by the MPAA, with the latter two being rated 'PG' (and none were rated as 'highly' as PG-13).

And every single one of these movies has moments of almost unbelievable bleakness and despair:

  • In Toy Story 2, there's an entire song devoted to the moment where Jesse the Yodeling Cowgirl's owner didn't want to play with her anymore, and that moment so scars Jessie that she allows that feeling to justify her existence as a sealed-away collectible on a museum shelf.
  • In A Bug's Life, the entire plot is driven off of the knowledge that, if the ants don't drive off the bullying grasshoppers that are extorting them, they'll all die -- either murdered by the grasshoppers themselves, or left to starve in the winter after the grasshoppers have taken the rest of the ants' food.
  • In Finding Nemo, the main characters are two clownfish that are the only survivors of a predatory attack by a larger fish that resulted in the deaths of not only the mother clownfish, but every other egg in her clutch.
  • The Incredibles features a villainous plot where the main bad guy, as a result of being forsaken by the heroic Mr. Incredible, devises a plan by which he not only secretly murders other superheroes, but will eventually make the entire idea of superheroes obsolete, complete with the catchphrase, "When everybody's special, nobody will be."
  • Up, of course, is one of the saddest and bleakest films Pixar has ever made, with a protagonist whose main motivation though the first two-thirds of the movie is to get his house to a particular place in South America so he can die there. (Don't believe me? Well, it's not like there are any grocery stores near Angel Falls, at least not as it's portrayed in the film. And while the protagonist's hero has survived in the area for decades, that hero also has a horde of intelligent dogs to do his hunting (and cooking!) for him; no such assistance is forthcoming for the protagonist, at least that he foresees.)

Even the now-famous Pixar Intro, featuring a bouncy desk lamp named Luxo, Jr., is capable of being interpreted bleakly.

The supreme irony is that this company, responsible for some of the bleakest moments in all of animated cinema, has entirely replaced the classic Disney animation studio, renowned for, among other things, hardly ever being bleak.

Why I liked it

True to the Pixar form, WALL-E contains a number of moments of bleakness.

Begin with WALL-E himself, who as we see has survived his 700-year mission of cleaning up Earth (or at least the area around ersatz New York City) by cannibalizing broken-down versions of himself. We later see that he has plenty of parts from other WALL-E's, arguably enough to make an entire additional WALL-E, yet the only other thing on Earth with which WALL-E interacts is a cockroach, who WALL-E treats as a pet.

WALL-E's mission, of course, is to clean up the Earth while humans are away enjoying the luxuries of 'executive starliners'; when we finally meet the jewel of that fleet, we discover that nobody particularly seems disturbed by going on year 700 of an original 5-year trip.

While still on Earth, WALL-E meets -- and falls for -- EVE, a fancy-looking robot who nevertheless is violently paranoid and has anger-management issues, at least when we first meet her.

Lastly, in getting humanity back to Earth, WALL-E himself is beaten up to the point of near destruction, and ends up posing the philosophical Ship of Theseus question in an ending which is arguably much too intense for small kids to really handle, and I'm sure led to many more uncomfortable driving-home conversations than most parents really anticipated.

Let's quickly touch on my other personal love-buttons, as noted in previous posts in this series:

  • Protagonist not an uber-competent warrior but rather a 'regular guy': check (though one could argue that EVE is as much protagonist as WALL-E, and she manages to get quite a bit done, it is WALL-E who originally finds the plant and shows it to EVE, triggering the main conflict of the story)
  • Juvenalian satire of commonly-accepted 'truth': check (to wit, the idea that capitalism will naturally make us all healthier, happier, and leave us with a better world than we started with)
  • 'Hey, it's that voice!' moments: Not just Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's computer (which also makes a humorous contrast with her role in GalaxyQuest) and John Ratzenberger as John, but also MacInTalk, the Macintosh's text-to-speech software, as the voice of the autopilot
  • Science-fiction connections: check (the story itself takes place over 700 years in Earth's future, but is also, as noted by Matthew Battles on the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog, a re-formulation of a turn-of-the-20th century science fiction story by E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops"; this may, in fact, be more significant than it first appears -- see below)

Oh, yeah, one other thing: the juxtaposition of conflicting emotional images. Consider the end of the movie, with WALL-E restored and Captain MacCrea jubilantly explaining to the kids watering the plant that brought the humans home how they'll grow all kinds of plants as they grow up, as a triumphant orchestral snippet goes on in the background, eventually giving way to Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" as the end credit theme. Then recall that the beginning of the movie featured the jaunty "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the musical Hello, Dolly! as we approached Earth and discovered a barren, sepia-colored wasteland.

Oh, and remember the reference to Forster's "The Machine Stops" above? That story ends with the machine-addled 'civilization' falling apart as the machines that maintain it break down, with the machine-dependent humans dying off in favor of "The Homeless", those exiled from machine-enabled society for questioning it, some of whom manage to find a way to survive on a bleak and desolate Earth, and who inherit it with the collapse of machine-addled society. Now go back and re-read the exchange between the autopilot and the Axiom's captain that leads off this essay.

Still think this movie has an unabashedly upbeat ending?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #3

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.
- Automated MNU Instructional Voice (uncredited)

#3 - District 9 (2009)

Yes, not only did I think this was the third-best movie I've seen since the start of 2001, I think it's the best movie I've seen all year; thus, it would have gotten my Oscar vote. (More on this in a post to come.)

Also, for the record, this particular write-up is spoilerrific, so here's the obligatory SPOILER WARNING.

Why I liked it

OK, have you not noticed by now the trend of SF/fantasy films in this list? If not, then I guarantee that the last two are going to shock the heck out of you.

I noted in my previous write-up that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was SF, but not Asimovian societal-impact level SF. Well, this one is. Basically, the gimme question at the opening of the film is, what might have happened if aliens appeared over Johannesburg in 1982?

That's the gimme question -- the one the audience is supposed to allow you for free. One of the cool things about District 9 is that the film also proposes other questions, many of which it doesn't answer, leaving the audience to try to figure that out for themselves:

Why do the Prawns just sit in their ship, even when it's obvious that they're starving?

This isn't answered, and isn't even really addressed in the film, except that it becomes the justification to put the newly 'rescued' Prawns into District 9, originally intended as a temporary settlement where emergency care could be provided, immediately under the alien ship, but which, after nearly 30 years, has become an institutional slum to the point where MNU, the multinational corporation that has taken 'responsibility' for District 9, decides that the aliens need to be relocated.

(My own pet theory is that what we see isn't actually the entirety of the ship -- when the officers and other Prawn elites realized that the ship was running low on fuel, they made a decision to detach a smaller command-style module which could make it back to the Prawn homeworld, taking as many of their own as they could and leaving behind the equivalent of Douglas Adams's Golgafrichan B-Ark dwellers to fend for themselves -- except for one ethical scientist who chose to remain with the swabbies in the hopes of being able to find a way to synthesize enough fuel on Earth to be able to get the rest of the aliens home as well. As you'll see, this explanation works for other unanswered questions as well.)

Why don't the Prawns just use their uber-weapons and take over?

Though Wikus eventually demonstrates how much cool a Prawn battle-suit is capable of, and does so after basically zero training, it's also clear that a concerted effort by 'inferior' terrestrial military technology can overcome it. It's also likely that any Prawn that had such an idea was dealt with when he first started acting up, which would also tend to explain

a) why MNU goes into District 9 with military escort every time they go in force, and

b) why the Prawns seem so subdued and 'broken' as a race; they're accustomed to having the humans knock the rebellion out of them, regardless of how much it costs them

(It's also possible, given my own theory, that just about everyone who'd be capable of masterminding such a military operation left with the command module; showing these aliens overcoming a superior multi-national military force would be the 21st-century equivalent of having a bunch of rural high-school kids hold off the Soviet Army.)

It's also suggested, in the scene where the MNU guys torch a hovel that's hosting a Prawn hatchery, that MNU deliberately tries to keep the Prawn population down specifically to keep them from becoming numerous enough to develop into an organized military threat.

Also, the scene gets in a nice twist on the traditional abortion debate. On one hand, abortion foes will appreciate that the scene raises ethical hackles even in pro-choice viewers as Wikus explains that, while they don't kill the Prawn children, the eggs are fair game. On the other hand, the act itself doesn't fall anywhere on the existing abortion debate spectrum -- what MNU is doing is the equivalent of compulsory abortion, not the sort of abortion that pro-choice advocates...well...advocate for. (Consider the very different emotional message that would be present if MNU had been invited to destroy the hatchery by a Prawn couple who said they couldn't afford to raise the hatchlings.)

The fact that the film doesn't feel the need to tie up every single loose end, but leaves some things unexplained (though with plausible explanations that the audience can then discuss later) is a very big part of the attraction of this film for me. The film expects that its audience will want to interact intellectually with the world that it's presenting rather than trying to handwave or techno-babble away everything that would interfere with having a nice, neat, packaged ending. It's a movie that presupposes an audience that's looking for something more than just passive entertainment, and as such it doesn't insult or belittle the audience's intelligence.

Well, maybe it does, for a few folks. After all, one of the biggest criticisms of District 9 is that it once again, at least in the minds of some viewers, presents the 'white people are inherently evil and dominating' trope that many, especially on the right, find condescending and insultingly 'politically correct'. All I can say to these folks is, do you not notice that the Prawns are taken advantage of by the Nigerians every bit as much as they are by the white scientists and middle-managers of MNU? It's an example of people deliberately looking for a reason to be upset, rather than people identifying a real flaw in the film. (Or do you want to argue that power hierarchies don't actually form where different societies are in close proximity?)

The other, and frankly even more irritating criticism of District 9 is that it's just Avatar with a less-expensive skin; both are about white guys who enter an alien culture and ultimately save the day.

This, frankly, is borderline insulting. Anybody paying attention should be able to see that Avatar and District 9 are very different films:

- Avatar features a damaged human who travels to an alien world where he interacts with the local culture and learns their ways. Ultimately, he falls in love with one of the aliens, becomes one of them, and delivers them from the human interlopers on their world. In the end, he finds redemption and healing.

- District 9 features a clueless human who travels to an alien slum ensconced within a human world, obliviously bemoaning that the aliens don't seem to have a culture. He is exposed to a chemical that slowly begins to transmogrify him into an alien, which separates him from his human love. His transformation makes him the target of every human power bloc in the area, and must hide out in the alien slum, where he reluctantly becomes party to a plot to try and get one alien (and his son) away from the slum to, maybe, deliver the rest of the aliens trapped on Earth. In the end, he is lost to humanity (the film uses a documentary style as a device, and ends with the admission that no human knows the true fate of the protagonist, though some have theories), and only time will tell if he can ever go back to being even part of what he once was.

So, yeah, both guys turn into aliens. That makes them exactly the same fucking movie.

Lastly, this movie does in spades something I touched upon in my write-up of Fellowship of the Ring: the protagonist of the film, Wikus Van Der Merwe, is not a hyper-competent action hero who wins every fight and rises above every challenge through his sheer awesomeness. At the start of the film, he's an arguably incompetent middle-manager who holds his position through nepotism rather than any shred of talent, and it's that very incompetence that makes the initial crisis, from which all other action in the movie flows, possible and believable. Yet his experiences allow him, even if just for a moment, to become the kick-ass action hero the story needs at the climax, where the fate of Christopher Johnson and his plan to rescue the aliens stranded on Earth is decided. I wrote somewhere (but now can't find it) that, while I didn't know at the time how good District 9 was as a movie, I did know that it was exactly the kind of story I wish I'd been involved with making.

That last is really the only reason I need to rank this movie #3; everything else is just details.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #4

Why do I fall in love with every woman who shows me the least bit of attention?
- Joel Barish (Jim Carrey)

#4 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Why I liked it

Man, how many reasons are you gonna need for this one? Let's get started:

It's actual science fiction.

We live in an age where 'sci-fi movie' immediately means 'CGI effects'. (See 'Avatar'.) And on one hand, this movie does have CGI effects. But it also has far more traditional effects, and the CGI effects don't overwhelm either the non-CGI effects or the movie itself.

But more to the point, the movie is science fiction because it follows the golden rule of science fiction: take a world very much like our own, ask the question "what if (this thing) were different in some way?", and figure out, as closely as possible, what happens because of that. In Eternal Sunshine's case, the question is, what if you could have your memory selectively erased?

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
Dr. Mierzwiak: Well, technically speaking, the operation
is brain damage, but it's on par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.

It's a very literary kind of science fiction storytelling, and one we seldom get in mainstream Hollywood films. That alone makes it interesting for starters.

It's got a blow-out cast

I'll admit, I'm very actor-centric when it comes to my movie likes and dislikes. If I like a performer, I'll often go see a movie I wouldn't otherwise consider, just for the chance to see that performer in action. Kate Winslet, for instance, is one of my favorite actresses, so much so that she nearly made 'The Holiday' and the first episode of 'Extras' watchable all by herself. (Sadly, she didn't, but the fact that I watched those at all is testament to how optimistic I am about any project she's involved in.)

But this film has many more outstanding performers:

  • Elijah Wood, in his first big-ticket movie since the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a creepy stalker-type guy (aka: the anti-Frodo)
  • Mark Ruffalo, in a traditional Mark Ruffalo role
  • Tom Wilkinson, as the avuncular doctor in charge of the company that runs the procedure
  • Kirsten Dunst, in a vulnerable yet sexually-forward role that, if you didn't know she had also appeared that summer as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man, would have started conversations in geek circles about how this Kirsten Dunst could probably do a good job playing Mary Jane Watson in that rumored Spider-Man flick coming out soon.

You'll notice that I didn't include co-star Jim Carrey on this list, but that's because there's a different point I want to make about him...

The movie actually gets good use out of Jim Carrey

I am not, generally speaking, a fan of Jim Carrey. In fact, Carrey is in the category of performers that has exactly the opposite effect on me as the category of performers that Winslet is in: knowing he's in a movie makes me significantly less likely to want to see a film.

Carrey is a 'bankable' star because people like to see his manic on-screen persona. I, frankly, tired of his manic on-screen persona during The Mask and, once I realized most Jim Carrey vehicles were, basically, The Mask without CGI, I didn't see much reason to watch him again.

With that said, the combination of director Michael Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is able to keep Carrey playing it straight, and an amazing discovery results: Carrey is actually a pretty darned good actor -- he doesn't need to be manic in order to perform well. (Though Carrey does get to be a bit manic, though not Mask-level manic, during the stretch of the film where he's racing through his own memories, trying frantically to hide the memory of his ex-girlfriend, which he's realized too late he wants to keep after all, from the people he's paid to erase those memories from his mind.)

Now with all that said, if the movie was just about the cast, it wouldn't necessarily have to be a good movie. (See Superman IV.)

It's a science fiction movie with big ideas, and not just about science

Joel: I can't see anything I don't like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I'll get bored with you and feel trapped because that's what happens with me.
Joel: Okay.

You might think of this as cheating, going back to the first reason I liked the film to close out my personal analysis, but doing this actually reinforces some of the major ideas from the film.

For instance, one of the main themes in the movie is that memory is sometimes the only thing that can stop us from acting on impulses that would be bad for us. There's an element of this in the Joel/Clementine relationship, but the real illustration of this point is a subplot where Mary (played by Dunst) has a powerful crush on Dr. Mierswiak, and Mierswiak (we learn from his soon-to-be-ex-wife) has been manipulating Mary into maintaining that feeling by convincing her to erase every bad memory associated with acting on that feeling. The revelation is actually far more chilling than Wood's character's admission that he steals panties from women he's attracted to while the 'team' is in their bedrooms erasing their memories of prior bad relationships.

In Joel and Clementine's case, though, the movie adds an additional wrinkle -- sometimes you have to be able to remember a bad memory in order to know how much of it to ignore. Because sometimes memory can also be an excuse that prevents us from acting in ways that would actually be beneficial.

These are big ideas, but they're not Asimov-level postulations on how society will change as a result of the science-fiction 'what if' premise explored in the story. They're explored within realistic-seeming relationships between unusual but still fairly realistic people. (For instance, I've known more than one woman who, while perhaps not quite as manic-depressive as Clementine, certainly play in the same ballpark.)

There's a reason Netflix lists the film under 'cerebral comedies', and if that genre isn't your style, then feel free to take a pass on this one. Otherwise, if your taste in movies seems at all like mine, why haven't you seen this one yet?