As someone whose love of books is frequently eclipsed by a towering devotion to the medium of film, I generally approach the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo with feelings of anguished frustration and nihilistic fatalism. Every year, I seek out the shortlist knowing full well that some of the best genre films of the year will have been overlooked and yet every year I am struck anew by how unwilling most Hugo voters are to look beyond their local Blockbuster-clogged multiplexes. However, as time has passed, my irritation at the Hugo voters has been replaced by understanding. The problem is not that Hugo voters are uninterested in genre film, but rather that many Hugo voters simply never get to hear about the embarrassment of riches that World Cinema has to offer the discerning genre fan. Indeed, I suspect that if the Hugos had a rolling eligibility period in order to reflect the fact that some people have to wait for DVD releases of smaller films than the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form would become a much better reflection of what is going on in the world of genre film.
As a result, my aim is not so much to chastise or mock Hugo voters as it is to raise awareness and encourage people to put as much effort into tracking down new films as they do into tracking down new books. This shortlist (my third, the first two being here and here) is by no means exhaustive. Despite living in London my access to films (particularly foreign-language ones) is impeded by the irrationality of international film distribution so if there’s anything I’ve missed then jump in the comments and let me know. What were your best genre films of 2009?
However, before I give you my Third Alternative Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, I feel that I should address the quality of the films that did manage to make the Hugo shortlist and, as is traditional in these circumstances, speculate as to the eventual winner:
Avatar (wri/dir: Cameron): Since even before it was released, Avatar has divided opinion. For some, James Cameron’s latest is the pinnacle of technological progress, reinvigorating long-since derelict 3D film-making techniques in order to take film-as-spectacle to an entirely new level of achievement and ambition. For others, Avatar is a reminder of how out of synch they are with the values of their cultural mainstream. Some critics even took to championing art films as an act of political dissent: Fuck the man, Go watch Ozu. Because the man hates stories about inter-generational conflict and inner turmoil set against a backdrop of middle-class post-War Japan. Ignoring the hyperbole on both sides, Avatar is a perfectly reasonable piece of film-making; it maintains the attention a lot better than some Hollywood epics, it has characters, it attempts to engage with themes and there are moments of beautifully cinematic and artistic composition. The film’s problem is that it is really not particularly original. For example, when we first meet the Na’vi (Cameron’s stand-ins for the Native Americans) they are riding alien horses. Cameron makes a big deal of these alien horses but they are effectively just funky looking horses. The same is true of pretty much all of the film’s other ideas: they are rather literal representations of the real world but with SF make-up plastered all over them. I don’t mind works of SF that are all about the world-building but if you are going to lavish that much attention on your setting, at least make sure that it isn’t the real world with the serial numbers filed off.
District 9 (wri: Blomkamp and Tatchell, dir: Blomkamp): In many ways, District 9 poses a similar problem to Avatar in that its main thematic thrust involves taking an aspect of the real world and SFnalising it. In the case of Cameron’s film, the aspect is colonialism and in the case of Blomkamp’s film it is South Africa’s apartheid regime. However, both films are intellectually problematic as while they do transpose the real world into an SF setting, neither film uses that process of transposition to actually comment upon the aspect of the real world they are supposedly engaging with. So while District 9 certainly replaces Black South Africans with aliens, its engagement with the history of Apartheid effectively ends there. This left the film wide open to accusations of racism as the aliens (called “Prawns”) are depicted as interlopers on human land who are clearly quite dim. Should we then take the film to be suggesting that black South Africans are alien? that they are interlopers on White lands? that they are (with a few notable exceptions who make the rule) quite dim? Had the film been entirely devoted to the issues presented in its first half then these unpleasant questions might well have floated away but, having raised the spectre of Apartheid, Blomkamp then allows his film to retreat into mindless spectacle with a second half that feels almost entirely like watching someone play a rather dull and unimaginative video game.
Up (wri/dir: Peterson and Docter): Up is a film that shoots its bolt in the first twenty minutes. Much like Pixar’s previous Hugo-winning film Wall-E, it opens with a moving but almost entirely dialogue-free vignette that explores themes such as regret, aspiration, acceptance and old age. This opening is so beautifully composed and thematically mature that it was always going to provide a substantial challenge for the rest of the film: Could the bulk of the narrative live up to those themes, let alone build on them? Sadly, the answer is ‘No’. While there are some nice moments in Up, too much of the film is devoted to the pointless chasing that dominates so many modern films and the exploration of a setting which, though foreshadowed as spectacular and exotic, actually turns out to be quite boring. Yes, a case could be made for the suggestion that Paradise Falls could never live up to the expectations heaped upon it by an entire life of aspiration and that this is actually the whole point of the film. However, such arguments turn upon a willingness on behalf of Petersen and Docter to be purposefully boring but Up is not an art house film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. It is not a broodingly deconstructive exercise in existential navel-gazing. It is a big, colourful family movie and thin plotting is really not what you want from that kind of film.
Star Trek (wri: Orci and Kurtzman, dir: Abrams): Narratively speaking, this film is a mess. Its plot is littered with strange holes and the kind of inexplicable coincidences that make you moan into your bucket of popcorn. If you were to sit down and think about the film in a calm and reasonable manner you would most likely realise that it was an incredibly silly piece of work even by the standards of J.J. Abrams. A man whose entire creative output could be described as ‘exquisitely marketed silliness’. However, to raise issues of ‘plot’ and ‘characterisation’ is to approach this film in entirely the wrong fashion. Avatar was heavily hyped as a harbinger of Hollywood’s ascension to some higher aesthetic level but in truth, Avatar is quite a conventional piece of film-making. In fact, its solid plotting, reasonable characterisation and brisk pacing are among its main charms. The next level of Hollywood’s evolution is not technological but tonal. Films such as Bay’s Transformers and Abrams’ Star Trek do not content themselves with entertaining the audience, instead they try to pummel them into a state of neurological collapse. Indeed, their action sequences are filled with such unrelenting kinetic energy that watching them is like being trapped inside a neon washing machine. But even when things are not exploding, these films ensure that their characters wander around in a state of limb-flailingly theatrical hysteria that borders on the manic. It is not just that the characters are drawn in broad strokes using loud colours, it is that their every mood is superhuman and their every psychological shift is earth-shattering. For example, the critic and author Chinua Achebe once chastised Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for using an entire continent as a prop in the break-up of one European mind. Star Trek scoffs at such small-mindedness by destroying an entire civilisation in order to make Spock a bit moody. Star Trek represents the next level in the evolution of Hollywood blockbusters. It attains a zen-like level of holy stupidity beyond the petty aesthetic quibbles of mere humans. It is the future of cinema and what genuinely terrifies me is the fact that I really really enjoyed it.
The final film on the shortlist is not only one of the best science fiction films of the year, it is also absolutely certain to claim the Hugo. Indeed, if recent form is anything to go by, the Hugo voters tend to nominate badly but vote sensibly. Indeed, unlike the Hugo for best novel, the history of the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is actually a pretty good representation of the best in mainstream genre film-making. The winner will be…
Moon (wri: Nathan Parker, dir: Duncan Jones): Moon is a film that quite self-consciously harks back to the golden age of American science fiction cinema in the 1970s. Back then, science fiction was a cinematic genre quite clear and distinct from action films and blockbusters which, as Star Trek demonstrates, are increasingly a genre unto themselves. Moon is a thoughtful film made on a small scale. It explores issues of identity within the context of a wider critique of capitalism’s commodification of human life. Are we really individuals if everything we do is a part of the system? Are you your job? No, because if you disappeared you would be replaced by someone else. Are you your hobbies? No because more likely than not your purchasing decisions are dictated by PR. In contemporary society, individualism is asymptotically impossible to achieve. The best we can hope for is to become part of smaller and smaller marketing demographics. Moon is beautifully acted, beautifully shot and perfectly paced. Anything less than resounding victory in this category should send people running from the award ceremony with their hair ablaze and the smell of blood in their nostrils.
Now that we have dealt with the films that are actually in competition, let us move on to the interesting stuff. The films that the Hugo voters somehow managed to overlook:
Zombieland (wri: Reese and Wernick, dir: Fleischer): It takes a lot to get me interested in a genre as foetidly moribund as the zombie movie. Where once the shambling undead were a scalpel allowing the dissection of unquestioned social trends, they are now frequently indicative of little more than lazily unfocused misanthropy on the part of writers and directors alike: Yes… people go through life as though they are half dead. We get it. Zombieland is not a film that pushes at the boundaries of its genre, it does not reinvent the zombie for the twenty first century nor does it sharpen the sub-genre’s old satirical blade by seeking out new targets or angles of attack. Instead, the strength of Zombieland lies its willingness to boil the zombie film down to its most basic molecular components and recombine them into a warm-hearted, funny and beautifully paced action comedy. Reese and Wernick correctly diagnose that the contemporary zombie film is all about the tensions between individuality and collectivity; the challenge to our sense of self by the compromises required for social living and the limitations placed upon us by the expectations and demands of other people. Most zombie films take this theme and expand it into a form of Randian sociopathy whereby the only way in which to escape the sickening mediocrity of the bellowing cow people that surround us is to reach for the chainsaw and the shotgun. Instead of pandering to tomorrow’s trench coat mafiosi, Zombieland presents the challenge of individualism in the much gentler form of a bunch of engagingly alienated misfits and losers who, having been thrown together by chance, have to work out a way of trusting each other. The themes are universal, the performances are strong and some of the ideas (and cameos) are hilarious, Zombieland is a warm and fuzzy joy… with zombies.
The Road (wri: Penhall, dir: Hillcoat): A successful adaptation of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road was always going to be a matter of style rather than narrative or characterisation. The original novel is, in many ways, a very traditional narrative filled with the cliches of the post-apocalyptic genre (trucks, cannibalism, scavenging, unspecified disasters). Its beauty lies in its stripped back poetic prose, its thematic complexity and its cyclically shifting tone that moves us from the blackest of despair to relief and profound joy over something as trifling as a warm bath. In order to do full credit to the original novel, the film would ideally have been directed by a creative intellect to rival McCarthy’s own and one does regret that someone with the stature of Terrence Mallick was not let loose on the adaptation. But this does not mean that The Road is a bad film. Far from it, in fact. The approach taken by Penhall and Hillcoat was to focus upon the film’s central relationship, the one between the father and the son. The father seems to embody all of the cautiousness and hostility to change that ended the old world while the son has the kind of charity and open-mindedness that would be necessary should humanity ever manage to pull itself back together and survive amongst the ashes of the past. Hillcoat brilliantly accentuates the father’s addiction to nostalgia by playing up the figure of the mother. The mother does not figure much in the novel but in the film she is made an embodiment of the Father’s attachment to the old world, a device that not only humanises him but also softens and blurs the moral dichotomy at the heart of the film. Surely, there is nothing wrong with missing the world you were born into when the world you are living in is so cold and dangerous? It is easy (as the book and the film themselves acknowledge) to paint the child as some kind of Messianic figure who is morally superior to his father but the film suggests that this is far from the case.
Ponyo (wri/dir: Hayao Miyazaki): Miyazaki is a director who seems to function in one of two modes. Either he is spitting venom at humanity and its failings by railing against the way in which we are despoiling our planet (Princess Mononoke), or he is plunging humanity into a hot bath and then drying them with a big pink fluffy towel by producing films that reduce even the most hardened of cynics to wide-eyed children hopelessly overcome by the fundamental goodness of the universe (Totoro). Ponyo is definitely a film that catches Miyazaki in a good move. A re-telling of the story of the little mermaid, it deals with a young fish who escapes her aquatic wizard of a father in order to explore the world of men. The world of men is smelly, polluted and frequently ugly and it is not long before the film’s titular character is trapped in a piece of floating detritus. Saved by a little boy, Ponyo then proceeds to fall in love not only with the little boy but with humanity as a whole. A love so profound and all-encompassing that Ponyo is willing to use all kinds of weird and wonderful magics to ensure that she can spend the rest of her life among men. As with most of Miyazaki’s works, the conflict at the heart of the film’s plot is resolved thanks to some gentle fudging but it is easy to overlook such idiosyncrasies in a film as enchanting as Ponyo. I remember once attending a conference devoted to Japanese film at which the veteran critic Tony Raynes complained that Japanese audiences only bothered going to the cinema to see Miyazaki films. Ponyo, though not his greatest or most ambitious work, is a timely reminder of just how singularly talented Miyazaki truly is.
Triangle (wri/dir: Christopher Smith): Christopher Smith is a director who keeps moving from strength to strength. He began his career as a part of the British boom in Horror that took place in the early to mid-00s but it is only with Triangle that he really began to find his feet as an author. Triangle could probably be described as Groundhog Day meets Switchblade Romance. Set in the Florida Keys, the film follows a group of friends on a day’s sailing. Out at sea and miles from shore, their boat capsizes in a storm leaving them to seek refuge on-board a creepy ocean liner that appears to be completely without a crew. That is until someone starts shooting at them. Exquisitely plotted and paced, Triangle manages to deliver as an action film, a thriller, a mystery and a work of genre as the group struggle to work out who it is that is trying to kill them. Beautifully shot and produced despite a comparatively low budget, Smith’s film is filled with cinematic moments that will be forever burned into your memory.
My final selection is also my choice for winner of the Alternative Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
Pontypool (wri: Burgess, dir: McDonald): Pontypool is the kind of film that is ill-served by capsule reviews and listings in paper. Indeed, I imagine that many people looked at the synopsis, saw that it was a low-budget Canadian zombie movie set in the studios of a local talk radio station and decided to give it a miss. Big Mistake. Pontypool is one of the smartest genre films made in the last five years. The fact that it is set in a talk radio station is not just a way of getting around the budgetary requirements posed of a zombie apocalypse. This is a film all about language. How it divides us. How it unites us. How it defines us. The film is constructed around the concept of a linguistic virus, a virus that inserts itself into the language and which infects anyone who uses or hears a particular phrase. In this case, the infected phrases are terms of endearment and casual greetings, the type of language that contains very little actual information but which binds us together as a society. What happens to a society when these little linguistic niceties turn against us? Certainly nothing good. The film also uses the concept of the linguistic virus to engage with the tension between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Quebecois as well as the role of incendiary political shock jocks in spreading social unrest and unhappiness. Pontypool is such an intellectually dense film that at times it is almost overwhelming but as your mind races to keep up with all the implications of the film’s central idea, the director still manages to keep you entertained using some brilliantly creepy sequences in which the horrified DJ reads out press briefings on the madness raging all around the studio. Pontypool is thought-provoking, technically superb and a huge amount of fun. It really is genre film-making at its very best.