August 15th, 2009

Alien tech

Twins vs. Aliens

I had been intrigued by The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, for years, having seen it displayed in airport bookstores and finding the concept interesting: a woman is called upon to hear the true story of the greatest author in the world, but as she begins to dig into it, she questions how "true" it really is. Also, there's a ghost or something.

At times, it reminded me of The Name of the Wind, House of Leaves, Midnight's Children, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. But I did not like it as much as any of them. By all rights, I should have loved the book, given that it features an unreliable narrator, identity issues, stories about stories, and bibliophilia. But I could not get into it, so much so that halfway through the book, I seriously considered giving up because I didn't care. I started reading more quickly, not bothering to read every word and just getting the gist of things so I could get to the end and figure out all the *~secrets~* of Vida Winter's fucked-up childhood.

It's a very gothic, Victorian story, so Setterfield writes in a very gothic, Victorian style, emulating the Brontë sisters, but the prose is too...too. It's overly ornate, and the fact that she never pins down a time period makes it seem kind of contrived. I didn't like the protagonist, whose love of books made me question my own love of books since it was taken to such a flowery, burbling extreme. Plus, she has ongoing melodramatic angst about a conflict that makes no sense. The story focuses solely on Vida Winter's fucked-up childhood, when I had expected it to have a larger, more interesting scope. I didn't actually care about any of the characters except maybe Aurelius, a kind man Margaret befriends during her investigations. And the book is almost completely humorless.

I was glad I stuck it through to the end since the reveals were pretty cool, but I just didn't care. The book had never grabbed me, and it continued not to grab me. Several people had recommended it to me—and most people like it—so I wouldn't not recommend it. Because if you get into it, it's a good book with puzzle pieces and surprises. But it was not an enjoyable reading experience for me. I hate reading books I don't like because it completely confuses my sense of reality and makes me wonder whether I actually like reading at all.

The premise of District 9 is that, for once, aliens do not land in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles but instead hover above Johannesburg, South Africa. They appear to be stuck there, stranded. So we humans Do the Right Thing and...put them in slums! Yeah, we rock.

The first fifteen minutes of District 9 establish the world of the movie, which is startlingly close to the world we live in. Using documentary and security camera footage, director Neill Blomkamp gives the story a frightening fictional veracity: this, this is what would really happen if we were visited by aliens. We would segregate them from the population. We would exploit them for their weaponry. We would give them a derogatory name, "prawns," and you can't tell me that's not what they look like, they look like prawns.

But despite the obvious allegory for apartheid inherent in the setup of the story, this is not a Message Movie. It does not beat you over the head with the idea that institutionalized racism is wrong. It's actually a very exciting sci-fi action movie with a simple plot centered around a complex character: Wikus van de Merwe, a regular guy who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets swept up in the alien-human conflict in ways he never would have imagined. Wikus represents what Seanan calls the "cheerful racist": he's so prejudiced against the aliens he doesn't even realize he's prejudiced. He doesn't see anything wrong with the way they're being treated; he rationalizes it all. And, yet, he's not a complete jackhole with no respect for their lives like some other characters. I found him a very interesting protagonist since he's not your typical Good Guy: he's likable but unsympathetic.

(And now I am randomly tearing up about a scene near the end. No, not that one. Before that. When he's in the thing doing the stuff.)

The special effects are fantastic; I often forgot that the aliens were CGI because they looked so goddamn real. And they have personalities and characters as well. But this isn't a "special effects movie." The special effects aren't supposed to look special. You're not even supposed to notice they're not real because the strength of the film is that it all looks and feels real. People talk naturally (the actors were encouraged to improvise their dialogue), and there are no Dramatic Hollywood Moments. We're just following along with the story of this one man.

(It is a very violent story, by the way. There are some gross scenes. And lots of people dying in grisly ways. Some of the audience found it funny because it was over-the-top, but I was always cringing every time someone died. Even the bad guys.)

Because District 9 spends most of its time being a thrilling adventure, it tricks you into getting caught up in the story without having to process all the backstory. It's designed to make you think without telling you what to think.
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