The Wild Things of Childhood

When asked what he would say to parents who criticized his book Where the Wild Things Are for being too scary, author Maurice Sendak responded that he would “tell them to go to hell.” It is certainly an ironic statement, considering that certain scenes from Sendak’s book, and certainly several images from Jonze’s recent film adaptation, spark images of distinctly hellish dreamscapes. The scene in Jonze’s film introducing the Wild Things as they destroy their huts around a blazing fire is particularly evocative.

But this is precisely the feeling that Jonze—via Sendak—wanted to evoke. Earlier in the same interview by Newsweek, Sendak remarked that, “we are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don’t want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art.” Jonze likewise stated, as he described his process of conceiving the film that the writing became easy when he realized the story was about “wild emotions.” In another interview, he expanded on this saying that, “as a kid, for me at least, wild emotions were probably the things that were the scariest.”

And that is precisely what Jonze’s film is about; it might as well be titled Where the Wild Emotions Are. When we are introduced to Max, his display of emotional range in the first ten minutes alone is staggering. When friends of his older sister destroy his igloo, Max transforms from joy to despair in a matter of seconds. Jonze expands on Sendak’s world by giving Max divorced parents to explain his fierce anger. Seeing his mother kissing her boyfriend sends Max into his largest tantrum, causing him to run away from home to the Island of the Wild Things.

Nothing about Max’s journey is tame. His boat trip to the island takes him through a treacherous storm with a dangerous landing on the rocky shore. The Wild Thing’s first thought when meeting Max is to eat him up. Even after Max “tames” them, that threat never entirely goes away. All of this is very true to Sendak’s book, but where it begins to stray is after their wild rumpus, when Max discovers that the Wild Things have emotional problems and inter-personal conflicts of their own, yet none possess an emotional depth deeper then Max’s—because of course, they are simply extensions of Max’s subconscious.

So when they ask Max if he will make things better, it becomes clear that Max is asking himself the question. Can he make his own world better? Can he tame his own wild emotions?

The emotional arcs of the characters drive the film rather than the plot, something almost never done in children’s film. I suspect this is the actual culprit behind the allegations that Jonze’s’ film is only for adults, as if children cannot be engaged by emotional complexity. I’ll admit that they film may be to slow for the attention span of most children’s, but foreign to a child’s psyche it is not. Or do we forget how much of playtime was comprised of endless rule making, and how deep the emotions ran when the rules were broken? If children love Jonze’s remake, they will love it for the same reasons earlier generations loved Sendak’s book, not because it is entertaining but because it is familiar.

by brian j walton

Imagine a New Body, for Everyone

At the tail end of a summer riddled with such high energy sci-fi films as Terminator 4 and Transformers 2 comes Surrogates, a Disney film with it’s own blend of sci-fi adventure sure to please any rabid fan. Surrogates shows us a futuristic world in which humans can experience life through robotic counterparts called “surrogates.” In the safety and comfort of their own homes, they simply sit back in a “stim chair” where they can control their surrogates as if they were their second skin. Bruce Willis plays Greer, an FBI agent who investigates the death of two people who died mysteriously when their surrogates were destroyed; a tragedy that was thought to be impossible. Greer’s investigation leads him to the “dreads,” those who have chosen to live without a surrogate, and their leader. When Greers’ own surrogate is destroyed, he is forced to continue the investigation in his own body.

From there the film dives into its third act, delivering some initially surprising twists that are obvious in retrospect. The film had to break some of its own rules in order to deliver them. In an early sequence, we’re told that no one can use a surrogate not already registered to them. However, in the third act characters change surrogates with as much spontaneity as the various identity switches in Mission Impossible: 2. When a filmmaker creates a new world with a whole new set of rules, he should respect his rules at least as much as he expects his audience to respect them.

Despite having a sizable visual effects budget, Surrogates was lacking aesthetically. Most of the surrogates were played by flesh and blood actors, but something about the stiffness of their performance or perhaps the ultra stylized sheen added to their skin gave the film an odd feeling. I breathed a sigh of relief every time I got to see a “real” human. I never thought a tired, bearded Bruce Willis would give me such a sense of relief.

One of the great advantages of science fiction is its ability to ask serious questions of human nature in creative and imaginative ways. Surrogates offers this to its viewers in some interesting, albeit understated ways. For instance, when a beautiful female surrogate killed near the beginning of the film is revealed to be operated by a balding middle-aged man, Greer and the other FBI agents are unfazed. This simple fact says much about our current society. The filmmakers seem to think this won’t shock their audience, and they are right. In a world where such things as sexual identity are a matter of choice, why would we be shocked? For the Christian, this reveals the need for relief from this fallen body. Yet it also shows quite clearly the inability of modern technology to deliver us from this problem. Technology, in its efforts to free us from the restraints of the world, only imprisons us further.

Surrogates doesn’t have quite the special effects or the exciting action sequences of a typical summer blockbuster, nor does it have the intellectual depth necessary to please serious science fiction fans. It’s most fascinating moments are delivered in the opening minutes during a documentary style presentation of the world that gave rise to Surrogates. Some of the footage they used was in fact real footage, particularly a video of a Japanese robotics engineer who has created a robot in his own likeness. Unfortunately, the film’s thematic subtlety ends there.

by brian walton

District 9: The Little Film that Could

In a world of Michael Bays and bloated summer blockbuster spectacles, District 9 is a welcome breath of fresh air. For those still among the un-initiated, District 9 is a science fiction film from Director Neil Blomkamp that has caused quite a stir among sci-fi fan boys and Hollywood filmmakers alike. What distinguishes District 9 from most Hollywood summer sci-fi flicks (aside from the unknown director and cast, shockingly realistic special effects, and slim production budget) is the way it  cleverly turns one of the most common science fiction tropes on its head: instead of  the now cliched alien invasion plot, District 9 opens with the premise that aliens have already arrived on earth, are here to stay, and live under the oppression of humans who simply don’t understand their extra-terrestrial neighbors.

The film opens with a whirlwind tour of the arrival of an enormous ship over Johannesburg nearly twenty years earlier, the discovery of the sick and undernourished aliens residing inside, and the building of “District 9″,the alien ghetto inside Johannesburg.The conflict is simple. The aliens, dubbed “prawns,” are violent, aimless, uncooperative, and apparently here to stay. The ghetto’s proximity to the city creates a constant tension between the animal-like aliens and their unsympathetic human neighbors.

Because of this conflict, a relocation effort is approved to move the 1.8 million aliens to a new “District 10″ camp well outside Johannesburg. The effort is led by Multinational United (MNU), a company which seems more interested in the aliens’ advanced weaponry (which only the prawns can operate) than in the safety and comfort of the species. They elect Wikus van de Merwe to head the effort, possibly because of his witless attitude, and possibly because the President of MNU is his father-in-law.

As Wikus investigates the house of one prawn, Christopher Johnson (as he was named by the MNU), he is sprayed with a mysterious substance that initiates a terrifying transformation. His body  slowly takes on the genetic make-up of the prawns. When the MNU discovers that Wikus’s genetic transformation has made him the first human able to operate prawn weaponry, Wikus immediately becomes the company’s greatest asset. At this point the film’s conflict comes clearly into focus. Wikus must escape MNU and find Christopher Johnson, his only hope for reversing the horrifying transformation. The partnership of these two characters, each harboring a serious dislike for the other’s species, provides the backbone for the plot as well as the primary exploration of the film’s themes of racism.

Exploring the real world themes of racism through speciesism is not particularly new to science fiction- remember the famous interracial kiss in the original Star Trek series? District 9, however, brilliantly pushes this theme further towards apartheid, creating a city on the verge of constant violence. This shift allows the theme to drive the plot, in addition to providing interesting intellectual fodder.

Perhaps the film’s strongest virtue is the stunningly realistic visual effects. Many are saying the film’s CG driven action sequences are just as good as anything in the Transformers films, which is shocking when you consider that the latter was made for $200 million and the former for a relatively slim $30 million. This tight production budget has allowed it’s $100 million in box office sales to firmly establish it as a massive success by Hollywood standards. Throw the film’s unique setup and a dash of strong acting into the pot and you’ll realize quickly that for all it’s oddities, District 9 delivers a much heartier meal then the well packaged junk food of Hollywood’s typical high budget summer fare.

If in this recession you cannot afford the local cineplex, you can always check out Blomkamp’s short that inspired the feature, Alive in Joburg, which can be seen here.

by brian walton

“Hurt Locker” Packs Heat But Lacks Heroes

Kathryn Bigelow has made quite a career for herself directing male driven action films. Although she certainly is no household name, many of her films are well loved by men in their twenties or later, most notably K19: the Widowmaker and 1991’s Point Break. With The Hurt Locker, her first feature film in six years, Kathryn Bigelow has moved from simply wowing male audiences to garnishing the notice of critics as well. The Hurt Locker is being called one of the first non-political war films of the Iraq war era and has been dubbed by many (particularly it’s advertisers) as “the best film of the year.”

The lead is played by Jeremy Renner in what many are calling an Oscar worthy performance. While this may be questionably high praise, it certainly is a visceral and affecting performance. James is the team leader of Bravo Company whose daily regiment consists of finding and diffusing bombs. It’s an undeniably dangerous job, and the film is mostly concerned with observing the men who have willingly put themselves in such a dangerous position. opens with a quote that states simply, “war is a drug” and the film plays that theme diligently over the following 131 minutes as it explores the actions and motivations of its main characters.

The story follows Staff Sgt. William James, who seems to love the job for one reason and one reason only: the adrenaline. He takes his protective gear off when a bomb seems particularly bad. He keeps a box filled with pieces of every bomb that’s almost killed him. His men move between loving and hating him, even contemplating for one chilling moment whether it would be worthwhile to kill him.

It’s an effective kind of character study in which we learn about a character purely by observation. The film doesn’t concern itself with back-story or speeches about wishes and fears.  In the tradition of such great classics as Lawrence of Arabia, it is content with simply observing the complexity in a man by what he does.

In the end, however, the film is a bit hollow. Perhaps it is its absolute refusal to make a value judgment on its heroes. Or perhaps it’s the overall somber attitude of the film – even other overwrought character studies as Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane knew how to have fun in the process.  It is, I suppose, an effective study of one kind of man. However, I doubt the film will take a place in the classics simply because it is not a film about heroes. The action is thrilling, the suspense palpable, the characters unique and engaging, but in the end it feels a little too full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is an excellent film by all accounts in its execution, but the artists seem obsessed with the truthful depiction of a matter with little or no concern for the virtues it portrays. A real hero is one that portrays real virtues in the pursuit of his goal. James’ strongest virtue is that he does an excellent job defusing bombs.  He is otherwise frustrating and disrespectful to the men around him, often putting them in danger. He brushes off his men’s critiques of his dangerous leadership habits without really answering their concerns.

One might say that Bigelow simply is not making a film about heroes and is choosing rather to study the very real and very flawed men who are actually fighting our wars. This is fair, but I must ask: in this age when our heroes are relegated away from the war films of old to the morally ambiguous — at best — superheros of today, where are the truly virtuous heroes to be found?