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Science Fiction Double Feature: District 9 pops, Time Traveler's Wife flops

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Back in the '80s, when I was much too young and impressionable to know better, I was very taken with narratives featuring tragic-romantic leads: From John Irving's stuff (Garp, Owen Meany) to Stephen King's and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (with its haunted hero, John Smith) to -- especially -- Cronenberg's singular masterpiece, The Fly (with Jeff Goldblum as doomed dork-bug Seth Brundle), I was digging the goner guys. Thus I cannot help but note this week's dual release of District 9 and The Time Traveler's Wife -- two ostensibly very different science fiction movies which nonetheless very specifically share this central theme: the plight of the freaky fellow who wallows in romantic torment and gets chased a lot.

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Points for cheeky irony.

(photo: TriStar / Sony)

District 9 is the superior of the two movies -- and not at all because it boasts in-your-face gory violence over plaintive romantic murk (normally, I adore plaintive romantic murk). Rather, this ham-fisted Apartheid allegory involving beleaguered insectoid space aliens herded into the eponymous South African ghetto wins several points because it craftily hybridizes much that was cool about '80s sci-fi (V, Alien Nation, Enemy Mine, plus a huge debt to The Fly -- these creatures seem to have flown in directly from Planet Brundle), whilst rocking both the action and the truly unusual setting. It may astound escapists to learn that the hideous Soweto shantytown depicted in the movie is (or, rather, was, before being razed) real -- presumably sans man-sized space bugs.

The tale focuses on a dork (natch) called Wikus (game newcomer Sharlto Copley), who is high on his promotion within MNU -- Multi-National United. The soulless corporation aims to extradite over a million of these icky, unruly, unwanted "prawns" (aliens) from their dismal township outside Johannesburg to a smaller property cunningly pushed as "more comfortable" but closer in design to a concentration camp. The setup is excellent: With lots of ADD-style television cutting but also very impressive visual effects, we witness these prawns hovering in their massive clunky ship not over "Manhattan, Washington or Chicago," but Jo'burg, which (twenty years ago; i.e.: in the '80s) came to be their unhappy home. Here in the present, their conditions are dire with crime to match, and local humans of all races have come to dread and despise them -- but MNU also covets their advanced technology, especially their DNA-encoded high-tech weapons.

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"Candy-gram..."

(photo: TriStar / Sony)

While the plentiful prawn shots (courtesy of Academy Award winner Richard Taylor and his WETA studios) remain damned impressive throughout -- it's easy to forget that they're not real -- the movie's hook is Wikus' gradually changing relationship with the interstellar species. At first a bratty know-it-all show-off (fanboys may relate), he's so callous and proud of his position that when his crew torches an alien incubation shack, he gleefully declares of the bursting fetuses: "It's almost like popcorn!" Things change, though -- and since it's right there in the trailer, this is no spoiler: In his blithe zeal, Wikus catches a load of puzzlingly multi-purpose alien "fluid" in the face, which alters his DNA (more hosannas to Seth Brundle -- not to mention Kafka), making him at once closer to the despised aliens and a fugitive from his own corporation, who decide it's best to eviscerate him for medical experiments. (Tellingly, his own father-in-law issues the lethal decree.)

Much like producer J.J. Abrams' lower-budget, CG-enhanced Cloverfield, District 9 represents another Industry bigwig (Peter Jackson, with Lord of the Rings co-adapter Philippa Boyens as co-producer) shepherding an unknown director (Neill Blomkamp) into the sci-fi big-time -- but if you're not too picky, it mostly works. For about two thirds of this frenetic movie, despite the constant genre pilfering (or possibly because of it: don't forget Alien: Resurrection's creepy lab!), it's a geeky good time. Jackson's gleefully gory pre-Rings mitts were clearly all over this thing, as there's puke and pee and grotesquerie to spare. The movie falters badly, however, whenever it aims to be heartfelt (the desperate talks between the lead and his lady are Film-School-101 terrible), plus the ugly Black Hawk Down-style third-act skirmish is migraine-inducing. Still, District 9 currently stands alongside Watchmen as the smartest sci-fi films of the year, and if reality TV looked anything like this, I might consider watching it.

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A bit of morning moping.

(photo: Warner Bros.)

Meanwhile, quite unlike District 9's overt pop-cinema pilfering, The Time Traveler's Wife is based on a very popular and well-promoted modern novel (by Audrey Niffenegger) -- and I'd love to bleat the movie's praises, but I just can't. Not only is it "not as good as the book," but somehow director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) have managed to miss out all the character bits which made the book worthwhile (omitting the urgent Violent Femmes concert at the Aragon Ballroom is criminal), delivering instead a flat, unrelatable and peculiarly boring treatise on emotional estrangement and endurance, with a run-time that feels like fourteen hours.

As Toronto and Ontario once again play "Chicago" and "Illinois" (Why can't a studio movie just be set in Canada?), we're back in Cronenberg territory here, which lends The Time Traveler's Wife its slim saving grace: It's mostly gloomy. (I like gloomy.) Our semi-tortured protagonist is Henry (Eric Bana moping through as the poor-man's Billy Crudup), whose genetic mutation is not that he's becoming a giant bug (or Hulk), but rather, under duress he dissolves and time-travels to various points in his life. The reason for this is never explained -- and hallelujah for that! Seriously! (If today's hot-shot twentysomething screenwriters explain one more unexplainable thing to me, I shall scream.) Nonetheless, in the press notes, director Schwentke (or whoever really writes the quotes in these things) claims that this is not a science fiction film -- um, but, oh yes it is: in fact, it's the very definition of the genre, with extrapolations of scientific phenomena prompting the audience to explore human concerns. And this is what's simultaneously terrific and crushing about the movie: it's an awesome concept, delivered with a punishing flatness.

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Love. Love will tear them apart. Again.

(photo: Warner Bros.)

The failings of The Time Traveler's Wife could be forgiven if only a modicum of effort were made to cajole us into caring about these characters -- but alas, it never comes. As Henry, Bana's empty pout proves nearly adequately decorative, but Rachel McAdams as his wistful squeeze Clare is miscast to an extreme. Not only is the Mean Girl totally implausible as a vulnerable sweetie (as if), but the filmmakers barely tell us who she is. Herein lies the movie's true tragic flaw, because the story is obviously about her, with Henry intermittently visiting her life as a sort of teasing Animus. And yet there's no hook, no handle -- apart, of course, from the machinations of another belligerent father-in-law.

If you must drag a date to this one, the highest recommendation I can offer is that you'll both be creeped out by the pervy scenes of a naked adult Henry visiting Clare as a little girl. Or there's the bloody climax -- which is actually kind of funny (and lifts directly from yet another '80s movie: John Landis' brilliant An American Werewolf in London). There's a little bit of Arliss Howard and Stephen Tobolowsky, if you're into them. Oh, and the band playing "Love Will Tear Us Apart" at the wedding is fall-out-of-your-seat hilarious. But otherwise, the novel would have been served far better by an adaptation up to its inherent strangeness, or even by going whole-hog wacky as a Jim Carrey comedy. Anything but this tepid, insipid melodrama. Rarely does a movie make me so dearly wish I could come unstuck in time.

Ultimately, what we're seeing with movies such as these is not the literal manifestation of remakes (got a surplus of those!), but a sort of cinematic cannibalism, rather than invention. While I don't wish to downplay the significance of the cinematic call-and-response (District 9 and The Time Traveler's Wife are both definitely responses, not calls), perhaps it's fair to consider these sorts of movies more valuable as pop-cultural smoke-signals -- echoes of fave movie bits -- rather than as original entertainments unto themselves. And that's fine, if you've got the time and the ticket money. As for me, I'm ready for some new stories.

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