Aliens: Mothers, monsters and marines

23 September 2011
Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens contains a fascinating exploration of the way Western culture has traditionally aligned feminine characteristics onto nature while masculine characteristics have been aligned with civilisation. However, far from the more clear cut representation of this dichotomy that Cameron would later explore in Avatar (2009), where feminine/nature equalled good and masculine/civilisation equalled bad, Aliens has a more complex exploration by presenting two extremes of femininity with masculinity caught in the crossfire in the middle. With the alien queen as the monstrous version of motherhood facing off against Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the nurturing version of motherhood, the hyper masculine marines are at best rendered ineffective and at worst killed or used as incubators.[i] A further complexity is added by having the ruthless corporate interests at play in Aliens to be more reflexive of the parasitic aliens than the values of most of the human characters.

Exploitative commercialism

Commercialism features heavily throughout Aliens creating a very cynical depiction of humanity in the future still being obsessed with making money despite the great technological advances we have made as a species. This theme began in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/science-fiction film Alien, which Aliens is a sequel to, with the crew constantly bickering about their bonuses. It was then revealed that the company they reported to (not directly named as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation until Aliens) had an economic interest in the deadly alien, wanting to get it back to Earth, and considered the crew expendable.

The focus on economic gain over human life is introduced in Aliens during the very first line of dialogue when the salvage crew worker expresses his disappointment over the fact that because Ripley is alive they cannot claim her shuttle for themselves. Later when a panel of executives from Weyland-Yutani are questioning Ripley, they seem more concerned about the loss of the mining ship the Nostromo than taking what Ripley is saying seriously. There is also an early scene depicting the LV-426 colonists debating the claim rights to what they’ve been sent to investigate.

The concern over losing infrastructure and resources over preventing potential harm to humans is later expressed when Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) speaks out against the idea of destroying the LV-426 colony (and the aliens who now infest it that he describes as an ‘important species’) because of the investments his company has made. The true extent of Burke’s cold-hearted economic opportunism comes to light later when it is revealed that he intentionally ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship and when he deliberately exposes Ripley and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn) to two of the impregnating spider-like ‘facehugger’ creatures in the hope that he can then smuggle the alien embryos back to Earth for the company’s biological weapons division.

Two types of parasites

AliensRipley may say that at least the aliens do not try to short-change each other for a percentage but the symbolic dichotomy of the company/alien allegiance versus humanity is set up in the original Alien film. The alien is the ‘perfect organism’ with its capacity to kill, acid blood defensive mechanism and parasitic reproductive system putting it at the top of the evolutionary food chain. The company is so purely focused on generating profit that it is similarly ruthless in its disregard for human life. Both the alien and the company exist to survive and continually grow.

In Aliens the primordial nightmare of the natural world that is the aliens is further emphasised but this time its human foe, specifically Ripley as the only survivor from the original film, is also aligned strongly with the natural world. Therefore, the opposing forces in Aliens are the brutal survival-of-the-fittest version of nature, reflected by both the aliens and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and the nurturing version of nature in the guise of Ripley.

Nurturing and destructive nature

The alien creature in Alien reflected a range of cultural anxieties about motherhood and nature. It was ‘born’ from a human who was forcibly impregnated through oral penetration, an act with overt sexual overtones. The monstrous femininity in Alien was further emphasised through the naming of the Nosromo’s computer as Mother, which on company orders treated the human crew as expendable. The symbolic conspiracy between the alien and the company is further established in the scene where Ash (Ian Holm), the crew’s android who was acting under orders from the company, tries to suffocate Ripley by forcing a pornographic magazine down her throat, repeating the image of sexualised oral violation.

The opposing team in Alien that went up against the deadly creature was the working-class crew of the Nostromo, which included Ripley. While not overtly masculinised, the Nostromo crew and their dilapidated mining ship were products of industrialisation and therefore represented the forces of civilisation (traditionally aligned with masculinity) opposing the threat from the natural world (traditionally aligned with femininity and overtly so in the Alien films). Set 57 years later, Aliens continues the mise-en-scene emphasis on industrial spaces although this time there is the introduction of a strong miliary aesthetic. This gives the human characters a heightened masculinity to face off against the heightened monstrous femininity of a large nest of aliens with a queen alien at its centre.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

The themes of nature and motherhood throughout Aliens are very pronounced with Ripley on the one hand being situated as the ‘good’ mother/force of nature while the alien queen is situated as a ‘bad’ mother/force of nature. Ripley is presented as caring, nurturing and protective towards the orphaned Newt while the alien queen symbolises nature at its most destructive and a nightmarish version of birth where unwitting subjects are forcibly penetrated and then made to carry an alien infant, which is ‘born’ by bursting out of their chest.

While there was little backstory given to Ripley in the original Alien film, in Aliens we learn that she was coming home to a daughter (no mention is ever made of a father) who has since grown old and died during the time Ripley was in her extended period of hypersleep. When Ripley discovers this news, and is naturally upset, she is sitting in a room with an artificial projection of a forest, which demonstrates just how far removed from Earth and the natural world she is, despite being on an orbiting space station. And yet Ripley is aligned with nature both as her role as motherly protector for Newt later in the film and the very dramatic graphic match edit at the start of the film where the Ripley’s sleeping face fades into a shot of the Earth.

Hyper masculinity and technology

By including the information about Ripley having been a mother she is given a specific motherly femininity that was not necessarily present in the original Alien. This is necessary to then contrast her with the marines whom she travels with to the LV-426 colony. The marines all have hyper-masculine bodies, including the women marines, one of which is joked about for being mistaken for a man. The marines are physically in peak condition but their ultra toned and toughened bodies give them an almost manufactured appearance. They have been mentally and physically conditioned for the purposes of combat and are far removed from the intuitive and empathetic Ripley.

While treated as somewhat of a novelty the marines are not bothered by the presence of Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an ‘artificial person’, perhaps because they are just as programmed as he is, possibly more so. The dialogue spoken by the marines is also an almost nonsensical combination of military jargon, bravado and slang. It is not until after the devastating initial attack by the aliens that the traditional chains of command break down, Ripley unofficially becomes their leader, and the marines all start talking more normally as well as displacing more emotions.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Before arriving on LV-426 everything about the marines and the settings they inhabit is artificial, aggressive and militaristic. The actual ship they travel in, the Sulaco, looks like a giant gun floating through space and while the awakening from hypersleep sequence mimics the sequence from Alien, this time, as the camera floats through the empty spaces of the ship, it, by contrast, focuses on the weaponry and other pieces of military hardware. When checking their weapons Private Drake (Mark Rolston) and Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) move as if they are in some sort of dance with the heavy machinery. Private Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) boast about the marines ends with him almost in an ecstatic rapture as he lists all the weapons at their disposal. Even when the film hints at the possibility of a romance between Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), it is done through Hicks offering Ripley a tracking device (completed with a joke about it not symbolising an engagement ring) and then demonstrating the use of one of his guns.

The artificial, technological and manufactured world of the military in Aliens initially excludes Ripley because of her status as an outsider. There is an anti-intellectualism in the way the marines reject her as an expert since all they think they need to know is what to point and shoot at. However, Ripley’s first act of endearing herself to the soldiers is when she demonstrates her proficiency in one of the giant robot-like cargo-loader units. By effectively giving herself an artificial giant mechanical body, Ripley is now one of the warriors who can use technology to improve upon nature. At the climatic final showdown at the end of the film it is the use of the cargo-loader that allows Ripley to defeat the queen alien. The mechanical body defeats the natural abomination. Curiously director James Cameron would later significantly alter the mechanical body symbolism when it is used in Avatar to again represent the military but this time as a destructive force that is threatening the natural world.

While Ripley does successfully use technology, machinery and weaponry to defeat the aliens she does so in an inventive and resourceful way that distinguishes her from the militarised approach of the marines. Firstly, for all their bravado, the marines in Aliens are very quickly shown to be completely out of their depth. Their weapons are useless underneath the cooling towers and they quickly discover that they are facing an enemy that does not abide by the rules of war that they are accustomed to. The aliens are the ultimate guerrilla warriors who use stealth and surprise in their attacks, discriminating against nobody. The aliens kill and impregnate the humans regardless of gender, age, class and race. After the first confrontation with the aliens most of the marines are killed (or possibly taken away for impregnation) and of the marine survivors only Hicks and Vasquez retain any sense of composure. Hudson falls to pieces and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) proves to be ineffective and out of his depth.

The bitch versus Mummy

AliensWhile Ripley is aligned with feminine and natural characteristics through her nurturing instincts, she is far removed from the alien creatures that represent the natural world at its most brutal and savage. The aliens are compared to both ants and bees and it turns out that the species is socially structured like an insect colony with a queen at the centre doing all the reproduction while her workers/drones go out to find bodies to be impregnated. By aligning the aliens so closely to the insect world Aliens is able to remove all audience sympathy from them as being part of the natural order. They are not a misunderstood species that only attack when provoked but are a deadly parasite that destroys other life so that it may continue. There is no doubt that the aliens must be destroyed and the charge to do so is led by Ripley, the human character most associated with nature.

The only character who does speak out in defence of the aliens is Burke but his motives are purely opportunistic rather than being out of a sense of animal welfare. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s desire to use the aliens for their own biotech weaponry almost symbolically removes the aliens from the natural order and aligns them with the most exploitive aspects of humanity. The company may not have created the aliens but they are responsible for the events that have caused human life to be lost due to exposure to the aliens. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation employees, Burke in particular, and the aliens mirror each other as different types of ruthless parasites. Again, it is curious to note that Cameron’s approach to the natural world is remarkably different in Avatar where all the creatures are valued as sacred life, including the hostile ones. The various representations in Aliens of the natural order versus the human order are a lot less clean cut.

The ultimate portrayal of the brutal natural world in Aliens is the perverse process in which the aliens give birth via human bodies. Humans are first exposed against their will to the eggs that contain the facehugger creatures that forcibly penetrate its victim orally. The aggressive sexual penetration symbolism is even more aggressive and violent when the queen alien impales Bishop on her tail at the end of the film. Once impregnated the alien embryo grows within the human body until it is ready to rip its way out through the chest cavity, killing its victim. Even Newt recognises the similarities between human and alien pregnancies with the later being a nightmarish parody of the former.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)The alien queen is the monstrous mother figure as opposed to Ripley’s nurturing mothering figure. Gigantic and grotesques the alien queen is the most spectacular creature to be seen at this point in the film series, laying the deadly eggs via a giant birthing tube while her worker/drone aliens wait in attention on the side. The alien queen does also seem to possess an intelligence that the other aliens do not – she recognises the threat Ripley poses so keeps the other aliens at bay, she is able to work out how the elevator works and she is able to get on board the second dropship. Her intelligence suggests a more calculated level of menace that had not be seen previously. The initial standoff between the alien queen and Ripley is one of strange mutual recognition not just of the power each other has to destroy the other but also the motherly role they have each adopted for their own species. However, while Ripley comes up out the film being called ‘Mummy’ by Newt, the queen mother becomes the ‘bitch’ who is thrown out into space by Ripley with the aid of the cargo-loading suit. The pure harshness of the animal world as expressed in the insect nature of the alien is defeated by the nurturing mother who masters technology and machinery to defend herself.

Over twenty years after making Aliens, James Cameron uses the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy in Avatar to make a clear statement of support on the side of the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy that is so prevalent in so much popular culture, past and present.  Even in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Cameron has Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) give a speech about women creating life while men create machines of destruction. However, back in 1986 in Aliens, perhaps particularly due to the mythology Cameron inherited from Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, the traditional alignment of female characters with nature facilitates the positive representation of femininity as resourceful and nurturing but also the much more negative representation of femininity as destructive and monstrous. However, rather than concluding that Aliens is therefore a confused text in terms of gender representations we should instead see it as a complex text that both reflects cultural anxieties about femininity and promotes progressive attitudes towards femininity. After all, the mother is the one who ends up defeating the bitch.

[i] For a full discussion on the monstrous feminine in the Alien films refer to Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien’, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1993.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Making stupidity a virtue in Hollywood is dumb

21 September 2011

Hollywood has a lot to answer for in its demonisation of experts.

In a Hollywood film there’s a good chance that if somebody knows what they are talking about then they will turn out to be the villain.

Consider the family-friendly blockbuster Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The hero is a wealthy real estate agent who wants to keep the penguins his late father left him so he can bond with his children. The bad guy is an experienced and knowledgeable zookeeper who wants to remove the penguins to care for them properly. In Hollywood, experts like the zookeeper have secret agendas while average dads just want to rediscover family values. We are living in an era in which expressions such as “over-educated” are used to mock those who have conducted years of research in a specific area and words such as “intellectual” and “academic” are terms of abuse.

Hollywood has a history of representing experts as the baddies, especially during the Cold War. Occasionally, in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the professors wisely heeded the precautionary message from outer space. However, there were many more films in the vein of The Thing from Another World (1951), where the scientist is presented as a pointy head who prizes scientific inquiry over human life.

So why does so much popular culture demonise experts? Shouldn’t we be grateful that they have done the hard work in particular fields so that we don’t have to?

The innocent explanation is that experts are boring. Tales about an everyday person saving the world make compelling stories, feeding the myth that anybody can achieve greatness. Stories about studying really hard for long periods without any semblance of a social life are not nearly as sexy.

The fantasy of the heroic average person is further fuelled by reality television, in which people with no real talent are catapulted into the fame and fortune stratosphere for doing very little of actual merit.

Even in the original Harry Potter films the naturally gifted Harry was the hero while Hermione was a source of derision for being so studious. This reveals one of the notable exceptions to the rule. Being born talented is not seen as elitist as you can’t help it, unlike working extremely hard to understand, analyse or master something above the capabilities of other people. “Street smarts” or excelling at sport are also acceptable forms of expertise.

Being trained in the art of war is one form of disciplined study Hollywood has no qualms with. Take the treatment of experts in the ideologically poisonous Transformers franchise. All government personnel are portrayed as egg-headed, bureaucratic fools. Attempts to understand a situation in order to respond with diplomacy and level-headedness are mocked and depicted as catastrophic. The heroes in Michael Bay’s trilogy are good ol’ soldier boys, an everyday kid and a generic hot chick.

This widespread discrediting of non-militaristic expert opinion in mainstream cinema is worrying and suggests the prevalent distrust of people who know what they are talking about. No wonder some commentators who were used to such values accused Avatar (2009) of left-wing bias simply because it made villains out of its ill-informed corporate and private security firm characters for trying to commit genocide.

Only in a climate where rational debate is stifled by appeals to be less smart could a centralist film like Avatar be seen as subversive.

Forrest Gump (1994) has a lot to answer for in terms of popularising ideas of stupidity being a virtue. Gump’s simplistic and naive view of the world sets him up as a fictionalised pivotal figure in how American identity has been shaped. He is also obedient and happy to throw the occasional punch. Dumb, dutiful and violent – that’s the Everyman that Hollywood served up to great acclaim in the ’90s and he’s been plaguing us since.

Expert opinion is seen as untrustworthy, as if it is out of touch with how the person on the street perceives issues. And to be fair, experts do often differ in how they perceive issues in their field when compared with the majority. That’s because they have an insight that the rest of us lack since we don’t have the time, resources or capacity to develop it ourselves.

So when somebody dismisses the findings of 97 per cent of the world’s peer-reviewed climate scientists or claims sentencing by experienced judges is too lenient, challenge them as to why. There is a good chance that their refusal to trust the experts may be because they are far too impressionable when going to the movies.

Original published in Fairfax newspapers and online on 21 September 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Spectacle is not the problem; mediocrity is

21 December 2010

This paper was originally delivered as part of The age of the spectacle: developing critical thinking in a time of eye candy panel at the VATE Jubilee Conference on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)

In 1895, French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first film they ever made. It was a 46 second long, continuous shot that was taken from a single fixed position. The film was called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon). The image of the workers filing out of a factory was not so much what was of interest in the film but it was the technology itself that enthralled audiences. They were seeing something they had never seen before – moving photographs. Other early filmmakers then went further to explore the potential that cinema had in order to create optical illusions and primitive special effects that were designed simply to mesmerise the audience. Cinema began as a form of spectacle.

While cinematic storytelling techniques were developed almost immediately, the idea that the visual component of cinema would be regarded as subservient to a story did not really occur until the 1910s when the classical Hollywood era of cinema began. This era, which lasted until the 1960s, defined the cause-effect narrative structure that we are now accustomed to, which includes making sure that the means in which cinema is constructed is kept hidden from the viewer.

A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

However, one thing that has remained true throughout the history of cinema is that it has always primarily been a visual art form and therefore what some may call eye-candy is in fact the essence of cinema.  And just like the audiences watching the people exit the factory in 1895, we are still fascinated with what technology can do and we want to be dazzled by something we haven’t seen before. Hence, the type of spectacle that cinema delivers has constantly changed to include sound, colour, panoramic screens to compete with the advent of television, special effects and today we have IMAX screens, new 3D technology, computer generated images and digital effects that continue to push the boundary of what can be achieved on screen.

So we aren’t living in an age of spectacle because spectacle has always been a part of cinema.

In terms of how we relate to popular culture now, I do not believe that spectacle is the problem. Instead, mediocrity is the problem and mediocrity intrudes upon all forms of cinema. A loud, noisy, big budget special-effects driven action extravaganza may draw more attention to itself when it succumbs to mediocrity but this doesn’t mean that all spectacle films are bad and it doesn’t mean that it is not a problem other films face. As an exercise, try to think of how many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers or family films that you’ve seen over the past decade that were worth your time and money as opposed to how many were completely disposable. Genuinely good films are in the minority, however, that’s nothing particularly new or revelatory.

The first major crisis of mediocrity in film history (in terms of the dominant Hollywood cinema anyway) was during the 1950s and early 1960s after the old studio system was dismantled. The industry fell into the hands of business people who only saw film as a commodity and much of what was produced in that era were second rate attempts to capitalise on earlier successes. However, the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s turned this trend around when a bunch of film literate filmmakers who were heavily influenced by European cinema were given a shot to make something different, since nothing else seemed to be working. Coinciding with the growing counter culture revolution the New Hollywood era is still arguably the finest point in American film history and it also resulted in an audience of cinemagoers who were hungry for intelligent and artistic films that they could engage with.

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

Unfortunately it’s been downhill from the 1980s onwards as Hollywood has become increasingly about producing films that adhere to specific formulas in order to be most effectively sold. There was a slight peak in the 1990s of independent American filmmaking and Hollywood films taking an independent sensibility but most of that ended after 9/11 terrified everybody into bunkering down to make safe, crowd-pleasing, unambitious distractions that toe the line and not dare be subversive. We’re still in the wake of that era and it hasn’t helped cinema that so many good writers have moved into television.

So where does that leave contemporary cinema? With all the good stuff that’s happening on made-for-cable television is cinema now just a refuge for brain-numbing banality? Not quite. There are still extraordinary films being made and screened but they do run the risk of drowning in the tidal wave of mass-marketed junk. Furthermore, there are plenty of formulaic crowd-pleasing films that are actually extremely good and commendable for doing something original and interesting within the confines of their generic trappings. And some of these films are films that we’d all identify as spectacle films. The trick is to become visually literate and culturally savvy enough to identify the spectacle films with merit and the ones that offer a vacuous and empty experience.

Part of the problem is that film is increasingly being taught in the context of it being an English or Literature text rather than being aligned with things like Art History and Fine Arts, like it is in many universities although that is changing too. So when you approach a visual art form as a purely narrative text you do run the risk of missing what it actually is that defines the film and that’s the elements of film style that in their most basic form can be summarised as the four areas of sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène, which is what we actually see in the film, can be further broken down into setting, costumes, lighting and acting-style. These elements of film style can exist without the film containing any substance and that’s when we get mediocre films, but these elements usually are vital in telling the story and sometimes they are the story.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)

So, telling the difference between films that are style without substance and films where the style is the substance is crucial. For example, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) creates mood pieces with little narrative drive but the essence of her films comes with the way she constructs each scene and presents the world to us. The recent film The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) was criticised by some for being an average film because once we strip away the beautifully constructed visuals you are left with a generic hit man film. But the point is you are not meant to strip away the visual elements to then reduce a film to just one aspect of its identity and in the case of The American the use of cinematic space, the setting and the references to 1960s and 1970s European cinema were designed to create a complex mood piece that functioned as a metaphor for the way America situates itself in the world.

Finally, to look at two films from 2009 that are easily identifiable as spectacle films, we can see the difference between something that appeals to audiences craving unchallenging mediocrity and something that is trying to show us something different. The example of mediocrity is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by director Michael Bay. This is a film that aims to do little more than distract us with explosions and cleavage. Being a spectacle film without a tangible story is not a crime itself, as that is how cinema began and continues to thrive in many art house and experimental movements. The problem with Transformers is that the spectacle is rubbish – it creates the pretence of excitement by distracting the audience with a constant bombardment of sound and motion, and most significantly, through the incredibly rapid editing (a trademark of Bay’s) that prevents the audience from ever latching on to anything that is happening. Transformers is an action film where it is impossible to follow the action. However, you are made to feel that you should be excited because the music swells and the editing quickens to inform you so.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Not that rapid editing is the enemy but using it to distract from the otherwise emptiness of a film results in mediocrity. It also doesn’t help that the Transformers films continue a prevalent conservative trend in Hollywood of ridiculing intellectuals and government workers at the expense of the military who are seen as the real thinkers and noble characters of the film. Transformers is also extremely guilty of continuing the tradition of pornographically portraying its female characters as items of desire that always require rescuing.

Finally, we come to a film that is markedly different from Transformers and yet it is all too easily dismissed as junk cinema simply because it is spectacle. That film is James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that not only set the benchmark for 3D technology (in the sense that it is the only 3D film to date to feel fleshed out and not just a gimmick) but it created an all immersive world that allowed Cameron to give a modern spin to a group of archetypal characters and to recycle familiar narrative traits in order to tell a modern story based on contemporary concerns and attitudes.

One of the most extraordinary things about Avatar is its incredible technological accomplishment in using 3D and digital technology to create such a vibrant world. The textures, depth of field and seamless blend of digital imagery with human actors was truly remarkable. And yet, this was somehow viewed as a bad thing as if such a visually accomplished film was somehow an inferior product. One commenter on my blog declared it to be a terrible film but then stated, ‘Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical’.

This taps into the automatic bias that many people still have against the visual element of cinema. Furthermore, it taps into the belief that some aspects of cinema are praise worthy while others are not. For example, many critics seem happy to praise other isolated aspects of a film – like the acting, or writing, or maybe cinematography – but creating special effects is still frequently seen as somehow a lesser art form. A film is the sum of all its parts and learning to appreciate all these aspects is crucial for effective analysis.


Avatar (2009)

But, what of the story at the heart of Avatar, which even I’ll admit is little more than Pocahontas in Space. The story is a simple one but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s therefore a stupid one. It certainly isn’t any more simplistic that the much-loved original Star Wars films. At it’s worst Avatar is a white-man-leads-the-natives-and-saves-the-day film, however, at its best it is an archetypal hero’s quest story were the villains are a militarised corporation who feel that destroying an indigenous culture and their environment is an acceptable action to take in order to pursue profits. The fact that some critics labelled it as therefore a left wing film just goes to show how deeply entrenched conservative values are in Hollywood. It’s a worry when being anti-genocide is regarded as being subversive.

So in conclusion, don’t worry about spectacle, worry about mediocrity. Cinema and popular culture are not the enemy but the influx of films and other cultural products that are designed to stupefy us are the enemy and they come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be so quick to dismiss spectacle films as eye-candy as you may miss some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-crafted films that are out there.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy on the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony and winners

9 March 2010

The Hurt Locker

There were very few surprises this year at the Oscars and I was able to correctly predict 12 out of the 20 awards. Although Avatar is still my preferred film of all the films nominated it is very hard to begrudge The Hurt Locker cleaning up, including winning the Best Motion Picture and Best Director awards. Those two awards finally recognise director Kathryn Bigelow’s incredible talent as a filmmaker, not to mention making her the first Oscar-winning female director.

I felt that the rest of the awards all seemed mostly deserved or justified with the exception of The Young Victoria winning Best Costume Design and Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for The Blind Side. However, in both cases the acceptance speeches won me over and I stopped grumbling. Despite her bizarrely ungracious attitude, Best Costume Design award winner Sandy Powell expressed my frustrations that period films like The Young Victoria usually win such awards while smaller films that are not about “dead monarchs or glittery musicals” get overlooked.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

I’ve never had anything against Sandra Bullock (despite disliking so many of her films) but I really didn’t want her to win Best Actress mainly because I reacted so badly to The Blind Side. However, Bullock’s acceptance speech was generous, heartfelt, humble and funny so I think she earned herself a lot of credibility in that moment. I do believe that newcomers Carey Mulligan in An Education and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious were nevertheless more deserving but they’ll have lots more shots at the award in the future.

As for the actual ceremony, there was a sincere and moving tribute to the late John Hughes, there was a pretty good attempt and demonstrating what sound editing and sound mixing actually are and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin provided more laughs  as hosts than It’s Complicated did in its entirety. It was actually a really enjoyable ceremony and the only dud aspect was that there was no time for a clip montage of cinematography nominees or for each nominated  Best Original Song to be played but there was apparently time for an interpretative dance routine to each piece of music nominated for Best Musical Score.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

On a final note, how great was it to see Jeff Bridges win Best Actor for Crazy Heart and then do that speech where he sounded like he was going to suddenly transform into The Dude in front of our eyes?

There’s a full list of all the winners on the official Oscars website.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy on the 82nd Academy Awards Nominees (including predictions)

4 March 2010

The nominations for the 82nd Academy Awards have been out for some time now and the general consensus seems to be that 10 nominations for the Best Motion Picture of the Year award has devalued the category, the inclusion of The Blind Side in two major categories is baffling but that otherwise the nominations are more or less what was to have been expected. In fact, the Oscars this year are shaping up to be one of the most predictable years yet.

I’m not going to comment on the any of the documentary or short film categories as I haven’t seen the majority of the films nominated but I will share my thoughts and predictions about the feature films up for various awards. Alternatively you can go straight to my ranked list of all the nominated films or the list of my predictions.

Best Motion Picture and Best Director

The Hurt Locker

The big story this year is that the two favourite films, Avatar and The Hurt Locker, are respectively by action film maestros James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, who used to have a professional and a personal relationship (they were married). Bigelow seems to be preferred mainly because Cameron won in a big way previously with Titanic (1997) and was kind of obnoxious about it while Bigelow has been previously ignored by the Academy.

The Academy frequently rights past wrongs by awarding people for less deserving films to make up for previous oversights and there is a good chance that will happen this year to Bigelow. The Hurt Locker is certainly a very good film but it is not a good as many of Bigelow’s previous films including Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1989) and Strange Days (1995). A lot of people are also excited about the gritty realism that Bigelow brings to the Iraq conflict but I can only explain that by assuming that they haven’t seen Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha (2007) and are yet to see Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010), both of which are superior films.

However, I still think Avatar is going to win the main prize and honestly that would suit me just fine. I’m rarely one to back the big, bloated, over-exposed Hollywood eye-candy film but of all the films nominated this year I truly think Avatar is overall the film that deserves to win. As I discussed in my original review and the subsequent occasionally heated comments, Avatar may have its flaws but it is such a technological achievement and such an immersive experience that it completely won me over. It certainly deals with archetypal characters and re-hashes a very familiar story rather than going for anything resembling narrative originality but I firmly believe that there is an art to repackaging a well-worn tale and making it something exciting again. Avatar over-exceeds  expectations and not many films can make that claim.

Acting awards

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

Jeff Bridges seems destined to win Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart and so he should as his role in the film is one that he’s been building up to for his entire career. While many people are betting on Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for The Blind Side, and she is the best thing about this loathsome film, I think the charm, freshness and non-rampant conservatism of Carey Mulligan’s performance in An Education may in the end win over the Academy’s voting members. I certainly hope so anyway but I suspect I am being naive. Christoph Waltz should and will win Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds and Mo’Nique should and will win Best Supporting Actress in Precious.

Writing awards

For the screenplay awards I’m pretty certain that the very good yet  middle-of-the-road Up in the Air will win Best Adapted Screenplay while Best Original Screenplay will go to The Hurt Locker. However, I’d much rather see the political and poetically profane In the Loop win for Best Adapted while the tightly written animation Up should really win for Best Original.

Technical awards

The White Ribbon

If Avatar does indeed win Best Motion Picture then I’m certain the Academy will compensate by not only giving The Hurt Locker Best Director but a bunch of other awards including Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. However, editing should go to District 9 for its seamless blend of cinematic styles while cinematography should go to Christian Berger’s incredible work in The White Ribbon. In fact, The White Ribbon is one of the most perfectly shot films ever made so I do hope the Academy prove me wrong and recognise its achievement in the cinematography category.

Production award

My pet hate with all film awards is that Best Art Direction and Best Costumes usually always go to whatever film was set the furthest in the past. Recreating historical details is always deemed more worthy that actually using art direction and costumes to reflect character or themes in a filmic way. So even though I haven’t seen The Young Victoria I’m sure it will win Best Art Direction while the visually bold, inventive and exhilarating The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus will miss out. In most other years I’d tip The Young Victoria to win Best Costumes too but I’m pretty sure that Coco avant Chanel will win because it’s about a fashion designer and the Academy are just so crushingly obvious like that sometimes.



Up, of course, will deservedly win Best Animated Film and the massively acclaimed A Prophet will win Best Foreign Language Film. Original score will go to Avatar and it would be very embarrassing if any song other than “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart won Best Original Song. Star Trek may as well take Best Make Up and as for Best Visual Effects … well, I can’t imagine even the most ferociously anti-Avatar critic thinking it won’t and doesn’t deserve to win for this one.

Ranked list of all nominated films
Doing this ranked list of films nominated in the various 82nd Academy Award categories actually demonstrated how foolish star ratings can be and how it is almost next to impossible to adequately compare films with such different purposes, audiences, styles and genres. Nevertheless, I persisted and this is the result:

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) 9 nominations
Up (Pete Docter, 2009) 5 nominations
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009) 2 nominations

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) 4 nominations
Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009) 3 nominations
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009) 1 nomination
A Prophet (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard, 2009) 1 nomination
A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2009) 2 nominations
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) 3 nominations
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) 1 nomination
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) 4 nomination
The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009) 3 nominations

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009) 2 nominations
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) 9 nominations
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 8 nominations
A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009) 1 nomination
Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) 6 nominations
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) 6 nominations
Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009) 1 nomination
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) 2 nominations
Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009) 2 nomination
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) 1 nomination

Coco avant Chanel (Anne Fontaine, 2009) 1 nomination
Sherlock Holmes
(Guy Ritchie, 2009) 2 nominations
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) 1 nomination

Nine (Rob Marshall, 2009) 4 nominations
The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, 2009) 2 nomination

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009) 1 nomination

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) 2 nominations
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009) 1 nomination

Not seen
Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, 2009) 1 nomination
Il Divo
(Paolo Sorrentino, 2008) 1 nomination
The Messenger
(Oren Moverman, 2009) 2 nominations
The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada, Claudia Llosa, 2009) 1 nomination
Paris 36 (Faubourg 36, Christophe Barratier, 2008) 1 nomination
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009) 1 nomination
The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, 2009) 1 nomination
The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009) 3 nominations

My predictions list

A full list of all the nominees can be found on the official Oscars website and I’m sure several thousand websites and blogs elsewhere. Here are my predictions in one straightforward list:

Best Motion Picture: Avatar (James Cameron and Jon Land)

Directing: The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

Actor in a Leading Role: Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges)

Actress in a Leading Role: An Education (Carey Mulligan)

Actor in a Supporting Role: Inglourious Basterds (Christoph Waltz)

Actress in a Supporting Role: Precious (Mo’Noque)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Up in the Air (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner)

Writing (Original Screenplay): The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal)

Cinematography: The Hurt Locker (Barry Ackroyd)

Film Editing: The Hurt Locker (Bob Murawski and Chris Innis)

Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson)

Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett)

Art Direction: The Young Victoria (Patrice Vermette and Maggie Gray)

Costume Design: Coco avant Chanel (Catherine Leterrier)

Animated Feature Film: Up (Pete Docter)

Foreign Language Film: A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)

Music (Original Score): Avatar (James Horner)

Music (Original Song): Crazy Heart (“The Weary Kind” by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett)

Makeup: Star Trek (Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow)

Visual Effects: Avatar (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Top Ten Films of 2009

6 January 2010


Instead of writing the usual apology or disclaimer for creating a Best Of list, I’m just going to confess that I love creating these lists as they provide a snapshot of what films I was most immediately impressed by from the year that has just finished. As time passes many of these films will fade from memory while some continue to resonate and establish themselves in film history so it will be nice to be able to refer back to such a list and remind myself of films that may be forgotten.

Top Ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australian in 2009

  1. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
  2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
  3. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  4. Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
  5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
  6. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
  7. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
  8. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
  9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
  10. Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)

Rachel Getting Married

The film that left the biggest impression on me in 2009 was Balibo, which left me initially feeling completely shattered and later left me in awe of how skilfully crafted it is with its combination of human drama, international politics and historical detail. The only two films I saw twice in the cinema in 2009 were Rachel Getting Married and Avatar; films at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to one another in representing what cinema can achieve. The ultra small scale Rachel Getting Married provided a deeply emotional examination of family dynamics and my love of cinema that captures a sense of place and something deeply human is further reflected by my inclusion of Genova, Samson and Delilah, Two Lovers and Every Little Step. The extravagant spectacle Avatar created one of the most immersive cinema experiences to date and my love of cinema as a visual art form is further reflected by my inclusion of Antichrist, Up and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Honourable mentions

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
Gomorrah (Gomorra, Matteo Garrone, 2008)
Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été, Olivier Assayas, 2008)
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

Top Ten unreleased films (in Melbourne)

Love Exposure

While Melbourne is a tremendous city for film, especially with cinemas such as Cinema Nova that are very much committed to independent releases, a number of exceptional films still miss out on getting general theatrical releases. Fortunately for the Melbourne based film lover there is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and what seems like an endless stream of film festivals picking up the slack. For this reason I’ve separately listed films screened in Melbourne in 2009 but not given a general theatrical release (and to date not scheduled for a 2010 release).

  1. Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono, 2008)
  2. 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008)

  3. Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German MI., 2008)
  4. Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009)
  5. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, Kim Ji-woon, 2008)
  6. Public Enemy Number One (Part 1) (L’instinct de mort, Jean-François Richet, 2008)
  7. Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
  8. Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
  9. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)
  10. T Is for Teacher (Rohan Spong, 2009)

Dogs in Space

Melbourne also benefits from a wide range of retrospective screenings and in a year that was already spectacular for Australian cinema it was an added bonus to have screenings and then long overdue DVD releases of Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 masterpiece Dogs in Space and Ted Kotcheff’s ‘lost’ 1971 classic Wake in Fright. Watching a newly restored print of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West, 1968) at The Astor Theatre was another highlight on the cinematic year as was visiting ACMI’s Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood exhibition. The Melbourne Cinémathèque once again provided a terrific program in 2009 and it was great to finally catch-up on some previously unseen films by Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Fuller as well as discovering for the first time the under-appreciated cinema of Frank Borzage.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 53, 2010.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Avatar (2009)

14 December 2009

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

There is not a single frame in Avatar that doesn’t look stunning and authentic: from the heavily militarised human mining colony to the beautiful forest planet Pandora that contains a rare mineral that the humans want, to Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi population who aren’t too happy about the human’s presence. In order to better understand the Na’vi, the humans have developed the means to mentally occupy specially grown avatar bodies that look like the giant, wide-eyed, opaque-skinned Na’vi locals. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who adopts one of the avatar bodies in order to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Na’vi.

Describing Avatar as “Pocahontas in Space” would not be too far off the mark as Jake’s relationship with the Na’vi people follows the white-man-assimilates-into-Native-American-Indian-culture narrative of many post-colonial films. However, Avatar is more in tune with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) rather than films such as Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) or Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which both contained a slightly more complex exploration of racial and cultural identity.

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)

Avatar is still a white-man-saves-the-day film and it is occasionally guilty of some rather naff moments when depicting the Na’vi as noble-savage types. However, at the core of Avatar is a very simple yet sincere environmental and anti-colonial message that removes all doubt about the film’s good intentions. Besides, such gripes are just so incredibly minor compared to the sheer beauty and exhilarating visuals at the forefront of Avatar. The scenes depicting the forests and floating mountains of Pandora are truly wondrous, the Na’vi and the avatars look incredibly realistic, and the action is exactly the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from writer/director James Cameron.

Cameron has long been at the forefront of setting new standards for high quality spectacle cinema with films such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) rightly regarded as classics of the science-fiction/action genre. With Avatar Cameron not only sets new standards for the use of computer-generated imagery special effects but also the use of 3D photography, which has a full depth-of-field and is integral to the texture and sensory impact of Avatar. Cameron has made no compromises with Avatar from a technical point-of-view and in time it will come to be regarded as a benchmark film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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