This week I caught two movies, GI Joe and District 9. I didn’t expect them to have much in common, and in truth they don’t. I did enjoy both, and for generally different reasons.
OK, let’s start in the middle — the stereotypical adolescent male that likes guns and high-tech weaponry will enjoy both films. There is certainly enough in GI Joe (maybe too much) and it’s peppered into District 9 enough to keep the hormone-addled interested. Both movies have open endings that can easily flow into more movies. It’s arguable which telegraphs it more. Other than that, the similarities run out fast. Being very close to a stereotypical adolescent male, I enjoyed both for their gunplay. Being a big backstory freak I enjoyed the undercurrent in both movies hinting at a larger picture. The major difference in how I liked the movies is I liked GI Joe because it was mostly a nice shiny surface, and I liked District 9 because it was a dirty, filthy mudbath.
I watched every episode of the GI Joe cartoon. I saw the cartoon-movie and was amazed because they *almost* killed a character. I had the toys that I put together (happily) and put the stickers on (badly) and had epic couch-warfare with my brother. GI Joe had a nearer and truer place in my heart than Transformers when I was growing up, though both factored heavily. I expected the high-gloss reworking that Transformers got, but I was hoping I’d get more humanity out of GI Joe-seeing as there are less big robots, I figured that would be an easy play. I was mostly right. It’s certainly a high-gloss movie. Everything is pretty. Camera angles sweep, explosions fly around the viewer, and Scarlet’s hair always looks freshly brushed.
Make no mistake, the movie is sexy. Plenty of shirtless, muscled guy-action for those that like that, and extremely-form-fitting-or-is-it-just-painted-on armor for the women. Also, miraculously, both Scarlet and Baroness go for the long, flowing hair despite the significant amount of hand-to-hand combat they both do. Aside from the traditionally sexy, the techno-sex doesn’t stop either. Just look at Duke’s rifle at the beginning of the movie. It seems to have every attachment possible on it: lasers, flashlights, sights, etc. Scarlet has a crossbow, but it’s a laser-sighted one with homing darts. Baroness has sunglasses that tint and clear at the touch of a button. Voice-controlled airplane? Yep. Hummer with retractable bulldozer cutter, missiles, and bulletproof tires? Check. Personal submersibles with guns? Oh yah. Oh, and ninjas. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have more reason for rivalry vs. the cartoon. I’m not sure what dictates use of guns and other projectile weapons vs. swords for them as they use both, but it’s mostly immaterial.
The thrust of the plot is rather predictable (must stop city-destroying nanobots) but they put a lot of good gloss into the side plots for the motivations of all the players. The only one that feels kinda lame is the Baroness, mainly because it’s a major departure from the cartoon. Most other things line up pretty well in the cartoon universe, although I’m sure they never destroyed as much Paris in the cartoon. In fact, I don’t think very much of the movie is even based in the US beyond the very beginning. I guess they’re dropping the “Real American Hero” bit from the GI Joe taglines as it’s now a multinational team. They do work in “Yo Joe” and “Knowing is half the battle” so don’t feel too bad. Points for director Stephen Sommers use of many of his favorite actors: Arnold “Imhotep” Vosloo as Zartan, an uncredited Brendan Fraser as a GI Joe training instrutor, and Kevin J. O’Connor as Dr. Mindbender. Awesome.
Coming back around to Transformers, however, what you see with GI Joe is what you get. While there is backstory, everything is conveniently lined out. There is very little room for interpretation. And when there is any, someone will step in and explain it for the audience. I’m looking at you, Optimus. This movie’s exposition is at least spread out between a few characters (Breaker, Destro, and General Hawke), and it’s slightly less heavyhanded. Optimus’s booming “wrap up the movie” speech echoes in my head whenever I hear that fantastically overplayed Linkin Park song. Somehow GI Joe escaped having an overplayed single embedded within it, though it did end with “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas. Whatevers.
District 9’s backstory is legendary. There’s supposedly 20+ years between the coming of the aliens and the movie. The movie’s almost completely done from the POV of humans, so very little of the aliens’ motivations are there. There are glimpses into the motivations of many groups, but never a full picture from the MNU (Multi-National United force in charge of security) nor the townspeople of Johannesburg, especially the different factions of citizens supporting or criticizing the alien, nor the gangs taking advantage of the situations. There is so much richness in the setup for this movie, it’s great.
The storytelling method shifts around a lot during the movie. Sometimes it feels like a documentary with shakycam, interviews, all in a cinema verite kind of way. Sometimes it’s an action film with smooth helicopter footage, chase cams, and dramatic angles. This hybrid of styles is a little jarring, but it adds to the feeling that this is less a movie about gloss and more a movie about a genuinely messy turn of events.
The main plot is there’s a powder keg situation happening because the aliens that have been literally hanging out in space above Johannesburg are causing serious tensions and need to be resettled. We follow one man who’s in charge on the ground, and when things go haywire, they are not kidding around.
This ended up being a surprisingly heavy movie for me. I had heard a lot about the movie’s origin as a short-film of interviewees seemingly decrying the disdain that people had for the aliens — interviews which were obtained by asking different ethnic and social groups about the others. I had expected a heavy dollop of social commentary and a veiled show of man’s inhumanity to man by way of an extrapolation to the treatment of the aliens. What I got was that with a heavy dash of man’s inhumanity to man directly as well as a very taut, suspenseful movie with a healthy amount of action film thrown in.
I’d say District 9 is the best movie I’ve seen this year, but I may still give that honor to Star Trek. I’m torn because I think Star Trek is extremely watchable, and I know I’ll see it again and again, but while I think District 9 was exceptionally well done, it may be hard to reinvest in multiple viewings. Another movie that made me feel this way was Children of Men which also had a “not too far in the future” feel to it as well as a very high level of first-person camera. This movie is a little less dramatic in some of the action, but the movie is very weighty and there are definitely parts of the movie that are hard to watch because of the confluence of situation, gore, and investment in the characters and the overall serious tone. The actors did an amazing job of selling the emotions and motivations. There are some light and even funny parts in the film, but there is no wasted dialogue on catchphrases or jokes.