Bad SciFi Movie Night

A year or so ago, I posted up on Facebook that I had finally gotten a chance to watch Tron, and asked people what movies were worth looking into. The response was overwhelming, and I've come up with a long list of films that I should watch, along with some of my own research into cult classics and gems from the science fiction / fantasy genres. When Megan moved in to my apartment, we began what we jokingly referred to 'Bad SciFi Movie Night', running with the idea that most of the films from that time period are bad films.

It's entertaining, that whenever I post up something about Bad Scifi Movie Night, there's an inevitable flood of replies that the films that I'm watching *aren't* bad. It's true: while there have been some films that I've come across that have been hard to get through, most are outstanding. So, here's an explaination to what I can point to.

So far, Megan and I have run through an excellent list of films:

12 Monkeys, 2001, 2010, Alien*, Aliens*, Alien Nation, Batman, Blade Runner*, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind*, Dark Crystal, Dune, Enemy Mine, 5th Element*, Forbidden Planet*, Jason and the Argonauts, Gattaca, Highlander, Last Starfighter, Logan's Run, Omega Man, Outland, Planet of the Apes, Predator, Silent Running, Starship Troopers, Supernova, Soylant Green, The Thing, Tron, Total Recall and Westworld. (* indicates that I'd already seen and owned it, but rewatched it.)

Of those, there's some real classics that I've really, really loved: Alien, Alien Nation, Omega Man, Outland, Silent Running and Soylent Green. Others, I didn't like: Enemy Mine, Dark Crystal and Supernova. Win some, lose some.

What I'm enjoying about this watch-list is that it's an excellent opportunity to go through some of the roots of science fiction classics. Movies such as Alien, 2001, Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet and a couple others are real classics in the genre that have absolutely shaped the films that come after it. Part of this came out of my love for the film Moon, by Duncan Jones. In some of the interviews and commentaries that I've read/listened to, he's cited films such as Silent Running and Outland as direct inspirations for his first, brilliant film.

As a historian, my instincts are to look at the roots of what form the present. The films of the 1950s through the early 1990s form the basis for movies and popular culture of today - it's easy to recognize the phrase 'Soylent Green is People!', but it's also important to see some of the roots and themes of the stories from these movies. Understanding the past is important to understand the present, especially in something such as popular culture.

So, while Bad SciFi Movie Night is titled as such, it's not reflective of the quality of the films that we're watching: if anything, the films that we've gone through are just as good - better in some cases - than films that are coming out today.

Alien vs. Aliens


Over the weekend, I watched two Science Fiction films, Alien and Aliens for the first time. In my quest to have a better sense of the genre, I've been putting together a list of older films, from the 60s and 70s, and these two were on it.

Actually, I had watched Alien once before - I had watched it once, not very closely, and was rather indifferent about it, and when the movie vanished from my collection, I never bothered to pick it up again. This weekend, with little to do but housework, I set up both films (recently aquired used from a local store) and watched both.

Alien is a masterpiece of a science fiction/horror film. Aliens, not so much. I realize that this flies against most of what other people have said about the movie, and taking in to consideration that the two films are vastly different, but I'm willing to stand by my assessment on this.

Alien is quiet, thoughtful, engaging and absolutely beautiful. Aliens is a mess of action, annoying characters and an overwhelming sense of energy. The two films could not be more different from one another, but in a way, that is why the two of them work so well for one another.

What strikes me most about Alien is the sets, look and feel of the universe that Ridley Scott and the production team set up. The Nostromo is wonderfully put together, a space ship that feels well worn and practical, the way that science fiction should be: durable.

Aliens on the other hand, feels flimsy, out of place after watching Alien. Rather than a quiet science fiction film, Aliens is a loud, fast and exciting rush that at times, drags on the plot. Where Alien succeeded as a horror film, building up the anticipation, Aliens kicks the action into high gear.

This is logical, I suppose, for the fans of the first movie, and for the franchise as a whole. The fact that the second movie is so different helps, I think, even if it does fall into the more is better mentality that seems to be the guide rule for most sequels now. A second film like Alien would be the worst thing for the franchise: it would be a dull installment.

Still, while this is good in theory, a major change and shift in tone, Aliens, I found, is let down by its execution. There's action, but it's not smart action. James Cameron has never really been a subtle director, and this is no exception. The acting is annoying, until the end, but the endless action is just repetitive and brings down the film as a whole.

Still, it's a better action film than most action films out there right now, and it's easy to see where the rest of the genre really comes from. That being said, Alien ends up on top.

Of Mice and Mobile Armored Assault Platforms

A number of websites have begun to herald a change in the science fiction genre recently, with the recent releases of Moon and District 9 earlier this summer. I was a huge fan of Moon - I thought that it was an absolutely fantastic film, one that captured the essence of the entire genre in wonderful fashion. However, District 9 is a worthy companion for Moon this summer.

Where Moon was quiet, sterile and patient, District 9 is much of the opposite. Taking place sometime around the present, the world has lived with the presence of an alien race on the planet for nearly two decades, when a massive alien ship appears over South Africa. Inside is millions of insectoid aliens, sick, dying and weakened, who are transported down to the surface, where they are first put into temporary shelters until a suitable place can be found for them. This never happens, so a slum of sorts is formed, District 9.

When the story picks up, tensions have risen in the last twenty years, so the aliens (referred to as Prawns) are being relocated to a new home - District 10. A private security company, Multi-National United, seems to have been placed in charge of their protection and keeping, and is working on evicting the aliens to their new home. An MNU employee, Wikus van der Merwe, portrayed by actor Sharlto Copley, is promoted to command the field units in charge of relocating the aliens. During the course of the day, Wikus is sprayed with a fluid by mistake, which begins a process of mutations that blends human and prawn DNA. Thus begins a nightmare for Wikus, who is in turn hunted by Nigerian gangsters and MNU security forces, who both want to study him in order to utilize the alien's weapons.

The film is shot in a very unconventional manner, partially handheld camera work, security cameras, news footage, which gives the entire film a very raw and rapid feel throughout, which really suits the tone and style of the film, and gives it a unique look and feel. The director, Neill Blomkamp, is a first time-director for a film of this scale, although he was initially attached to the now-defunct Halo film (and I think that he would be the perfect director for the project, when it comes back).

Another element that really succeeds from this film is the portrayal of the aliens. For once, aliens are truly alien, not just humans with a different appearance. The Prawns are insectoids, with a vastly different understanding of society, and the differences in cultural norms is what seems to drive much of the conflict - different values, such as property and personal possession seem to be relatively unknown elements to the aliens, and this leads to incidents. Their awareness of the surrounding events seems to be limited as well, with some exceptions, which makes them very easy to take advantage of, as MNU seems wont to do. The aliens here aren't saviors, superior or anything like that, they're just alien.

In a similarity with Moon, a big storyline with the film is Multinational United, the security firm that has more corporate motives that surpass what is ethical or moral. In Moon, the company would just clone its worker, Sam Bell. In this film, they go a step further, experimenting with Prawns to attempt to utilize their energy weapons and technology. When Wikus is transformed, one executive notes that his one body will be worth billions to the company, and they go about vivisecting him before he escapes. Corporate greed and corruption seems to be an especially powerful theme these days, with companies such as Enron, Blackwater and bailed out banks still making the news.

But what really makes the film is Wikus. He is as unconventional a main character as I've ever seen. When we first see him, he is a small, quiet man being interviewed by an unseen camera man. He stumbles over his words, fiddles with objects and is easily distractible, and seems as surprised as everyone else in the room when it is announced that he will be in charge of the field operations of the mission. He reminds me of one of the characters from Monty Python, a clueless husband who doesn't realize that his beautiful wife is having sex with the marriage counselor in the same room while having a meeting. He is, essentially a mouse in a much larger world. This is evidently seen when he comes across one of the special operations teams, and butts heads with its leader, who shoves him out of the way.

With his accident, there is an emotional, as well as a physical and physiological change within him. As he is infected with the fluid that transforms him (and thus making him a target), Wikus is forced to go on the run and go against everything that he's known. While in a position of authority over the Prawns, he is essentially xenophobic, condescending and racist towards the aliens, but without any real intent - he operates as he always has, as he's always known. His dismissal of the aliens is casual, because that's what's expected of him. During and after his physical transformation, Wikus is thrust into a role that he never asked for, and never wanted. Chased by members of the criminal underworld and his own company, he seeks refuge in the only place that becomes available to him - District 9. He allys himself with the scientist who had the fluid in the first place, who, as it turns out, is attempting to leave the planet, and the fluid was a necessary component of his ship. The story progresses logically from here - faced with this need, the two pair up and liberate the fluid from MNU, and the action picks up.

Wikus's story is not necessarily the singular purpose of the film. Throughout, there is a much darker, and highly relevant theme of racism that really puts the film on the map. In the opening of the film, there is a sequence of events that turns the public tide against the aliens. All too often, the presence of extra-terrestrials visiting humanity have a dramatic effect - they are either invading, or they are here for humanity's rescue. In this instance, they are neither, and because of this, they are not wanted, by anyone. One person in the film says that if they were from a different country, it might be different, but they were from another world. In essence, this is an immigration issue of very different proportions, but an immigration issue none-the-less, and it is fascinating that this film came out of South Africa, which has so recently dealt with apartheid. Around the world, this film can come to represent the plight of immigrants. I can see people in Palestine, South Africa, the American southwest and numerous other places around the world relating to this sort of film, or at least gleaning some message from it.

I'm at a loss to see how this film was made for only $30 million dollars. It carries itself with a much more sophisticated and good looking appearance, from the complicated CGI of the aliens to the action scenes. This has the feel of a much larger movie, and I honestly hope that this film, along with Moon, will be the start of a much bigger trend towards more original science fiction on a smaller budget. What Blomkamp has done is put together a superior movie, blending the best in character development, overall message and unconventional storytelling that really makes District 9 a tribute to the genre. Like Moon, it takes common themes and turns them on their heads, creating a different movie, and because of that, we have a film that will no doubt be looked upon as a fantastic addition to Science Fiction.