Archive for January, 2010

11
Jan
10

Avatar VS District 9

I’m almost an entire month late, but I finally saw Avatar. I figure you don’t need a full blown review at this point, but maybe a side by side comparison of the two biggest sci-fi movies of 2009 will be illuminating.

So let’s do this… Avatar versus District 9.

What do they have in common? Quite a bit.

Both movies have extremely impressive special effects. Avatar obviously has the bigger (much bigger) budget of the two, and is therefore able to create an entire movie made up of effect shots. It’s almost an animated feature, with a few live characters. District 9 has seamlessly integrated CG characters that all look really good for a fraction of Avatar’s money. They could both be seen purely for “eye candy” appeal.

Both Avatar and District 9 are science fiction action films that have really obvious and preachy subtexts. District 9 ties its story directly to apartheid in Johannesburg, but swaps in some aliens. Avatar takes a more general approach, pointing the finger at humans who seek only to exploit resources and destroy the environment and culture of a beautiful planet for their own personal gain. Neither one is particularly insightful or subtle.

Both of these movies will spirit you away… if you let them. District 9 uses a documentary style introduction to give you a sense of immersion and make the world of the film come to life. James Cameron and his special effects team literally created a world and brought it to life with Avatar. Of course, if you slow down and try to chew on a few of the ideas both films throw at you, you might hit a couple bumps along the way. The Aliens in District 9 have been gathering teensy drops of fuel for years and have juuust enough to get home, but even after Wickus sprays himself with it they still have enough? Wait, fuel makes you mutate into one of them? In Avatar, the Na’vi can plug their hair into trees and the various creatures that populate Pandora, making the “connection with nature” of the natives literal. Did they really need to call the ore the humans want so badly “unobtainium” ? Don’t stop and think about these things in either film, just go with it.

Lastly, neither movie is particularly unpredictable or new in terms of the story being told. Avatar is taking a ton of flak for being almost a science fiction remake of Dances with Wolves or Fern Gully, which it can absolutely be compared to in terms of the format it’s following. Avatar is pretty straightforward, especially if you have seen either of those movies that it models itself after. As I said in my District 9 review, the movie quickly scraps its “oooh new and different” documentary approach and becomes every science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Also, the documentary style opening so clearly lays out all the elements of the story (the Nigerians, how the alien weaponry works, etc) that it is very easy to see where the film is going from there. The premise of using aliens to deal with racism isn’t new either, one can point to several Twilight Zone episodes or even Alien Nation to demonstrate that.

Okay, I get it, they’re kinda similar. Which is better?

Well you know that I only kinda liked District 9, but I kinda liked Avatar more. I don’t think it’s the best movie ever, and it’s certainly not Cameron’s best movie ever, but I refuse to let District 9 take sci-fi/action movie of the year from it. Whyyy?

Both movies ask you to root against humanity and side with a bunch of aliens, but Avatar does a better job of this. In District 9, everyone is a fucking asshole, including the protagonist and the aliens, yet somehow you’re supposed to root for both of them and be really happy to see some humans get gibbed. Avatar uses the very typical archetype of the “noble savage” to portray the Na’vi as culturally superior to the invading humans, who (except for the scientists and one chopper pilot) are portrayed as nothing but trigger happy marines and greedy businessmen. That trick is really old, but y’know what, it works.

I believed the cheesy developing love story in Avatar more than the cheesy developing friendship in District 9. Once again, Avatar’s version of the story is completely run of the mill, as the outsider from the foreign land falls in love with the girl from the native tribe and needs to learn their ways and so on, but it worked well enough. District 9 has Christopher mislead Wickus about transforming him back into a human, making Wickus feel so angry and betrayed that he knocks Christopher out and tries to leave without him. Minutes later, we are expected to believe that Wickus has such a strong redemptive streak that he is willing to further risk his own life to get Christopher home. These moments come so close together towards the end of the film without much explanation, and no matter how you spin it one of them has to ring false to me. I found the developing romance in Avatar to be completely derivative, but it worked and fueled the story just fine.

Avatar has a more awesome and somehow more believable bad guy, even though he’s completely over the top. I never got the sense during District 9 that the bald marine guy would ever be able to singlehandedly stop Wickus. He just seemed to miraculously survive every scene he was in, thus appointing him villain by sheer luck alone. The Colonel in Avatar is ridiculously badass; he runs out into an unbreathable environment to kick ass several times, and even has one quick scene where his arm is just casually on fire as he loads up his battlemech. He’s not as believable as Landa from Inglorious Basterds or anything, but you do believe that this guy could do some damage when the final showdown comes around.

Oh yeah, the final showdown… District 9 had little to no tension for me as Wickus piloted his battlemech (hey both movies have those too!). He was pretty damn unstoppable for the first two thirds of the firefight. In the fight at the end of Avatar, Sully is both physically outmatched in his Na’vi avatar AND in danger of his real (handicapped) body being found or tampered with.

The last, and perhaps most petty of the comparisons… Avatar is fucking prettier. It is. 3D or no 3D, Avatar’s special effects are worth the hype, even if the story isn’t. The movie is worth seeing if you’re an effects junkie. Everyone complains about CGI and many people think 3D is gimmicky, but this movie shows how these effects can be done to make a world seem real. District 9 has damn good special effects, but towards the end of the film it seems only interested in using them to throw more human bits on the camera. I suppose this is the least fair of the comparisons, since District 9 was made for waaaaay less money, but it is worth pointing out.

I’m sorry to say, but between “the little film that could” (please, Peter Jackson threw his name on it), and the “gigantic studio popcorn film in 3D”, I’ve gotta side with Cameron for telling a better completely derivative and cliched science fiction story.

03
Jan
10

Ted Chiang – “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” review

Like any good boyfriend, I have an uncontrollable urge to push good science fiction on my geeky girl of choice. After sort of striking out with Neuromancer, I have rallied the troops by recommending a Ted Chiang short story. I like it so much I decided to push it on you as well.

You can find an audio recording that is performed quite well by James Campanella for free here. It’s about an hour and ten minutes long.

Who’s Ted Chiang? It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a science fiction author who has only written a few stories, published at an incredibly slow rate. However, he’s won and been nominated for a truly ridiculous amount of science fiction awards. Each story has been truly labored over… and you can tell. I’ve read four or five of Chiang’s stories, but my favorite by far is the one I have linked above.

It’s a time travel story. Wait! Don’t run if you don’t like time travel stories! It’s a very different kind of time travel story. It’s told in a kind of Arabian Nights sort of way, cloaking the science fictiony aspect of the story in the words of myth and legend. If you don’t like time paradoxes, you can actually rest easy here. I won’t spoil too much, but just know that you should give this one a shot even if time travel isn’t your thing.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” feels like several mini stories that are all connected. It tells the tale of many people that use a “gate of years” to go through time and details the effects that their travel has on their lives, and more importantly, their understanding of their lives. The narrator himself also journeys through the gate of years, giving the story a sense of immediacy so it doesn’t just feel like several tales being repeated for you to hear.

The real beauty of this story is that it’s just as much about storytelling as it is about time travel. It’s about the effect (or lack thereof) that a story can have on a person. It’s about fate, the prewritten “story” of your life, and how many people attempt to rewrite their own story, improving themselves along the way. Of course it’s also left to you to ask yourself, would you change your destiny? Meet yourself? Rob yourself?

It’s a tiny little story, but the characters are all surprisingly strong. I can’t help but mentally compare this to Steven Erikson, the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. He can have you spending time with characters for hundreds of pages and you don’t feel you know them like you do the few people in Chiang’s story. Granted, Erikson’s characterization has gotten better in the second book, which is the one I’m still on, but that is for another review. This story makes you understand and care for it’s characters in a truly tiny amount of space. It’s really something to admire, especially in a science fiction story, where many people read just to get to the “gotcha” ending or the preachy moral.

A quick word about Campanella’s audio version of this story… it rules. He narrates it almost like The Prince from the Sands of Time video games, giving it an authentic sort of tone. The male voices are all really good; my only complaint would be with his female voices, as a few of them sound a little chipmunkish. To me though, this is absolutely the way to experience the story… so go listen to it!