Friday, January 19, 2018

Shithole Alien Districts - DISTRICT 9

There has been a lot of talk lately about shithole countries.  Clearly, this is ridiculous, because while all countries have their bad areas, it is reductive and offensive to call an entire country a shithole.  All countries have areas of great beauty, people of generous character, and opportunities to offer the world.  I think what Trump meant to say, because thinly veiled racist statements are so unbecoming of a President of the United States, was "Why are there some many people wanting to immigrate from shithole districts?"  And by people, he meant aliens, since he was clearly thinking of Neill Blomkamp´s groundbreaking film examining the hellish living conditions of South Africa's infamous DISTRICT 9.  Although someone should break it to him that it isn't a documentary.

The Capsule:
In 2010 Johannesburg, South Africa, 1.8 million refugees are forced to live in subhuman conditions in a slum designated District 9.  The fact that the refugees are not human does not excuse their treatment in the slightest.  Back in the early 1980s, a gigantic mothership parked over Johannesburg, stranding huge numbers of blue collar aliens who didn’t know how the advanced systems of the ship worked.  Having no concept of personal property, a completely foreign social structure, and looking rather odd from a human’s perspective, the aliens were unable to assimilate and were forced into a marginalized existence, scavenging and selling advanced technology for cat food.  One industrious alien, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) has been working in secret for 20 years distilling enough spaceship fuel to kick start the mothership and get his people off Earth for good.  Unfortunately, bumbling racist Multi-Nation United bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) fucks it up by unknowingly confiscating the fuel canister during an illegal eviction.  Wikus gets to see how the other side lives, though, when the fluid he accidentally sprayed himself with begins to genetically transform him into an alien.  His bosses, including his father-in-law (Louis Minnaar), are so delighted at the development they can’t wait to dissect Wikus alive and harvest every part of his body for weapons research.  Escaping just before having his heart cut out, Wikus takes refuge the only place available to a freak like him, District 9.  When Christopher Johnson explains he can reverse the process on the mothership, Wikus, Christopher, and his brainy son embark on a dangerous mission to retrieve the fuel canister that will pit them against the MNU battalion of mercenaries, as well as a load of opportunistic Nigerian gangsters.  Along the way, Wikus must weigh the welfare of millions of sentient beings against his own selfish, dumbass life.

I dearly love Neill Blomkamp.  The South African director is equal parts political/social commentator and enthusiastic sci-fi movie nerd.  His allegories may not be as exquisitely nuanced as Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, but they all have robots.  That’s a fair trade, as far as I’m concerned.  While the CG in Blomkamp’s films may not age as well (though it looks lovely to me), his subject matter will likely be depressingly relevant for the foreseeable future.  

DISTRICT 9 is about South Africa’s period of apartheid.  The period of institutional racial segregation may have ended in 1991, but it’s scars linger to this day.  So much, in fact, that Blomkamp didn’t have to create the horrible living conditions of District 9, he just used an existing camp were Johannesburg’s poorest residents lived. And not years ago, either.  Some people were still living there when filming began.  His sci-fi fable wasn’t “not far removed”, it was literally overlapping.

The film may have been a sci-fi reflection of horrible abuses of apartheid, but it is more on the nose as a parable on the immigration crisis (which the film predates by six years).  The government response of herding over a million uninvited guests into a segregated refugee camp and ignoring them seems depressingly prescient.  All the other nations claim NIMBY, since the mothership literally landed in South Africa's backyard.  In Star Trek terms, it is a terrible first contact, especially for the aliens.  Most of the population views them as shiftless, hard shelled thieves.  They are shunned by the public, exploited by the Nigerian gangsters, and vivisected by the private company charged to take care of them.  Sure, the aliens may—occasionally—rip a human’s arm off, but as far as an invasion from space goes, the Earth got off pretty easy.   

By the way, the aliens are derogatorily referred to as “prawns” because of their crustacean-like appearance and scavenging ways, but I don’t want to be racially insensitive even to races that don’t exist.

The sharp script Blomkamp co-wrote with Terri Tatchell goes a long way, but the movie solidly rests on Sharlto Copley’s shoulders.  Copley is a chameleon, totally disappearing into whatever role he is given, including the three he’s done with Blomkamp and half dozen plus roles he played in HARDCORE HENRY alone.  With the exception of Elysium, where he plays an unrepentant dickhead from start to end, Copley can come off as more endearing than he has any right being.  Wikus Van De Merwe starts off as an over-privileged, incompetent, racist (speciesist?) buffoon.  He is so obtuse he doesn’t grasp the level of cruelty he is inflicting on these creatures for the sake of career advancement.  Throughout the movie, though, he slowly—and painfully—has his eyes opened to the truth.

Blomkamp and Copley must have a similar relationship as Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, because the movie gleefully puts Copley’s character through the ringer.  Wikus’ transformation starts off embarrassingly tumultuous, like when he tells his wife he might have shit his pants just as a surprise party for him starts.  After his escape from the dissection-happy employers, where his father-in-law calmly discusses how to distribute his organs as if he wasn’t listening from the table, the abuse only gets worse.  The MNU release a cover story explaining Wikus’ condition as the result of an alien STD.  No one listens when he protests “I would never have pornographic relations with one of those creatures.”

Wikus haplessly pinballs around from one predicament to the next.  Everyone wants a piece of him, from his old boss, to the homicidal head mercenary, Koobus (David James), to the Nigerians (they just want to cut his arm off, he can keep the rest).  He also has to endure some Cronenburg-esque body horror as bits of him keep falling off.  It’s hard not to feel bad for the schlub, even if he completely deserves it.

The sharp political satire and self-reflection is great, but once Wikus and Christopher Johnson get their hands on an alien armory, the movie switches tracks into a gloriously excessive orgy of sci-fi action.  The weapons roster is straight out of a video game.  Lightning gun, check.  Magnetic launcher, check.  Explosion gun (I guess), check.  No matter what they use, the result is a crimson mist where there used to be a mercenary.  Also, I believe this is the only movie to use a pig carcass as a deadly, high speed projectile.

The squee factor goes through the roof when Wikus climbs inside the alien mech (drivable robot with gun arms, for any non-nerds out there).  It’s a nice touch that the mech resembles the alien physique, even down to the dangly feeler things coming off the mouth.  It is also equipped with so much hardcore geek bling that it deserves to be pained on the side of a van.  

Even with all the fan service, the climax in District 9 is incredibly tense and emotionally engaging.  It doesn’t start off as Wikus’ finest hour.  Not only does he screw up Christopher Johnson’s 28 year old plan to fly the command shuttle back to the mothership, his first action when suited up inside the badass mech is to run away.  However, his newly found empathy ultimately wins out over cowardice and he takes on Koobus’ whole team of heavily armed killers to give Christopher Johnson and his son a chance to escape.  

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted a sequel as badly as I want one for this movie.  The questions left dangling are meaty enough to satisfy a pit bull.  The biggest question, somewhat rhetorically, is how badly are we, as a species, fucked when that mothership comes back.  Despite Wikus’ eventual altruism and a few people eloquently speaking for change without actually doing any of it, this incident casts quite a shadow on the human race.  One of the most damning—and, let’s face it, realistic—strikes against us is that even though everyone acknowledges that a fleet of highly pissed off aliens are likely on its way to Earth, no one has changed their behavior in the slightest!  The aliens are still treated like subhuman shit and corralled in an internment camp.  If we were smart, the aliens would suddenly be our new best friends.  We would move them into the suburbs, give them all the cat food they want, offer them a few free continuing education classes down at the community college.  Maybe, I don’t know, come up with a non-derogatory name for them.  The returning armada would see through that bullshit in a second, but we might score some points for effort.

The only real hope we have is that the alien overlords are just as big of assholes as we are.  They have a caste system where the workers are deprived of education, initiative, and self-determination.  The complete alien society might exist in perfect harmony, with all classes benefiting through selfless cooperation, but it sounds more like some majorly bougie shit to me.  Wouldn’t it be as ironic as hell if the mothership ended up on Earth as an attempt by the workers to escape a life of slavery and discrimination?  Christopher Johnson (not his alien name, I'm guessing) rallying the downtrodden by saying, “Come on fellas, where ever we end up has to be better than this!”  Then he spent the next 28 years going “How was I supposed to know?”

Damn, now I need a prequel and a sequel.

Even without a clear resolution, the movie ends on a hopeful note.  It shows that even the most narrow minded, myopic lunkhead can make a change.  All that is needed is to see the humanity in others, metaphorically or not. 

C Chaka

Friday, January 12, 2018

Digestive Issues- THE BLOB (1988)

Happy 2018 everyone!  I want to start the New Year by reminding everyone about the time  America was taken over by a horrible, bloated, mean-spirited monster who wanted to greedily devour everything in its way and leave only carnage and ruin.  No, not the one in the white house.  A different horrible, bloated, mean-spirited monster. The one from 30 years ago.  The one who wanted to eat your face, not crush your spirit.  I’m speaking of the 1988 remake of THE BLOB.

The Capsule: 
Handsome football star, Paul Taylor (Donovan Leitch Jr.) and his cheerleader sweetheart, Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) have their first date ruined when Paul accidentally plows into a homeless dude with some kind of acidic loogie on his hand.  The date is further ruined when it turns out the loogie is of extraterrestrial origin, can move about on its own, and grows exponentially with every townie it eats.  Soon, the survivors, including motorcycle riding bad boy Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon), are in a mad dash not to be consumed.  The cavalry arrives in the form of Hazmat suited soldiers, but lead government space virologist, Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca) is prioritizing science over citizens.  All the while, the deadly booger is getting bigger by the moment and there may be no way to stop it eating its way across the entire country.

The original 1958 THE BLOB was an undeniable B movie monster classic.  It was also a bit silly, even in its day.  The violence was lightweight and mostly implied.  It’s remake, on the other hand, is brutal as fuck.  Sorry to be blunt, but that phrase perfectly sums it up.  While both versions share the same premise, the tone of the two could not be farther apart.  

The difference can easily be seen in the titular beasties.  Conceptually, both versions are terrifying.  Giant, every growing, man-eating amoeba, not cool in any light.  The original blob design, though, while inventive for the time, was more than a little hokey.  How terrifying can a vat of silicone goop be?  The remake blob is a nightmare; alternatively resembling a tumorous raw liver or a probing mass of tongues.  It can go anywhere, is impossible to kill, and will thoroughly and graphically ruin anyone’s day with the barest touch.  In my opinion, this is one of the flat out scariest monsters ever filmed, just below THE THING.  

It goes deeper than a ghastly nasty, though.  THE BLOB ’88 wants to make you squirm.  Chuck Russell, fresh from the fan favorite A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. PART 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS, is no slouch at directing horror.  However, if I had to guess who was most responsible for the edgy, take no prisoners vibe, my money is on co-screenwriter, Frank Darabont.  This is the man responsible for THE MIST and the first season of The Walking Dead, after all.  Darabont is both a great writer and an absolute sadist.  His talent is setting up the audience, leading us along in one direction before stopping us dead with a serious emotional gut punch out of left field.  He loves messing with you, and THE BLOB is a finely calibrated engine of fuckery that strips away all notions of safety. 

[Note: I am going to be more spoilery than usual, blowing some cool twists, so I hope you’ve seen this one already.]

The heroes are established right off the bat.  They are as all American as you can get, the high school football star and his cheerleader girlfriend.  Paul Taylor may be the handsome football jock, but he’s just self-conscious and bumbling enough to be relatable.  He’s the moral center that steers the movie, so when the blob creeps up on him the first time, you wonder how he’s going to get himself out danger.  Well, surprise motherfuckers!  He doesn’t.  Meg runs in to find her all American boyfriend completely engulfed and digesting away.  All Meg manages to save is his arm.  The movie totally Janet Leigh'd our hero!  [Incidental spoiler for PSYCHO].  Good thing Kevin Dillon is on hand as an alternate.

That’s not the only curve ball.  Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn plays Sheriff Geller, who is hard on bad boy Flagg, but is endearingly sweet on big hearted diner waitress, Fran (Candy Clark).  As soon as Geller gets wind that something seriously wrong is afoot, he heads off to the diner to check on his girl.  Good thing, too, because the blob attacks the diner and sends Flagg, Meg, and Fran running for their lives.  Fran ends up trapped in a phone booth, completely engulfed by a hungry, mobile acid bath (can anyone have made a more insanely terrifying situation, by the way?).  She desperately calls the police station for help from Geller, as we are comforted, knowing Geller is really on his way to rescue her.  Psych!  Geller is already dead and his half-digested face sliding up against the glass is the last thing Fran sees before the booth implodes.  It’s like a big middle finger to our expectations. 

There’s more to it than just the movie being a jerk, though.  It ratchets up the tension, because, as Joe Bob Briggs would say, anybody can die at any time.  There are no sure bets, no safety nets.  You can’t even count on the children making it out.  

On the scale of horrible deaths, being dissolved alive is pretty much on the very tippy top.  The remake really exploits this idea, shoving all the gooey, gory remains in your face.  Some deaths are immediate, like the diner dishwasher who is pulled head first down a sink drain (kind of like a full body garbage disposal gag), or the cop who is snapped in half like a celery stick.  Other deaths linger uncomfortably.  People wiggle around inside the blob.  Half dissolved bodies beg for help.  When the blob snatches a kid (see, told you) and disappears underwater, we’re given a few moments of calm before he pops back up, screaming his melted face off.  Can you imagine if Darabont had written the trash compactor scene in STAR WARS?  That would have made for a seriously different trilogy.   

There are a lot of satisfying deaths, like the annoying loud movie talker who gets snatched from his seat by the blob in mid spoiler.  That’s followed by the blob slurping up a half-dozen presumably non-annoying movie goers, though.  In fact, the bad guys usually get the quick demise, it’s the innocent victims who we see suffering.  On the other hand, their suffering comes by way of some truly brilliant makeup effects and prosthetic work.  Tragic, yes, but super impressive!

Interestingly, animals are the big winner here.  I pegged the dog, and definitely the stray cat, as appetizers for sure, yet they make it out fine.  If it wasn’t for that one sewer rat who (presumably) gets swallowed up, the blob would be PETA approved.

Despite all the gruesomeness, at its oozing heart, the movie is undeniable fun.  The concept is just too ludicrous to take seriously.  There are all sorts of horrible calamities that can befall a person in everyday life, being digested alive is not one of them.  Trust me, it’s super rare.  

And once the goop really starts to fly, the thrill ride pacing means you don’t have time to dwell on anyone’s grisly fate.  It’s like a well-designed, very gross haunted house ride.  There is always another, even worse thing waiting to jump out at you.  

There are plenty of oddball parts to offset the trauma, such as Dr. Meddows and his Anti-Blob Squad, complete with containment suits and M16s.  Despite Joe Seneca’s wise old grampa face, we all know these guys aren’t there to help.  Once it’s revealed that the meteorite that brought the blob to Earth was actually a satellite housing a mutated virus (thanks a lot, NASA), Meddows goes into full Ian Holms from ALIEN mode.  Capturing the creature is priority one, all townsfolk are expendable.  When an earnest scientist points out the blob will soon grow big enough to eat the whole world, one crewcut meathead even says, “This will put U.S. Defense years ahead of the Russians.”  Will these Bio-Weapon jerkoffs ever learn?

[Side note: I am 100% positive Trump wants to create a Bio-Weapons Department.]

I love the brainlessness of the military dudes who think the best way of dealing with a shapeless mass of killer Jell-O is by shooting it.  That’s like trying to wrestle fog, there is no way that will work.  Their flamethrower is more plausible, but even less effective.  At least the rocket launcher (courtesy of a very panicked Bill Mosley from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2!) comes in handy to blow open an escape for Flagg and Meg.

The cast all do a solid job, even the ones who don't remain solid for very long.  The leads, Dillon and Smith, are the standouts.  Dillon is as likable as he has ever been, although for a bad boy, we never see him do anything bad, unless being poor is considered bad in that town. Paul McCrane has a nice arc as Deputy Briggs, who starts off as a small minded asshole, but eventually proves to be a stand up guy (though not standing up by the end).  Smith wins the crown as the cheerleader turned blobby asskicker, Meg.  She's known mostly for her later jaded and sarcastic roles, such as in the SAW films, but I wish she would get to play the hero more often.

As grim as it is, the film ends on a triumphant note.  Meg and Flagg use the monster's weakness against it and the unstoppable beast is reduced to a pile of inert bubbles.  It gives us hope for dealing with our current ravaging, uncontrollable monster who is endangering the country.  His weakness has more to do with Twitter than extreme cold, but hey, I'm sure it will lead to just as spectacular a downfall.  Better yet, it will likely be of his own causing.  Until then, lets just keep looking out for each other and try not to get swallowed up.

C Chaka