Root for District 9 to do well. The Comic-Con hit represents a lifeline to Hollywood. Commercial director Neill Blomkamp (with backing from Peter Jackson) has made an intense, unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller that throws you into the doc-like reality (think Cloverfield on steroids) of a battle between humans and insect-like aliens (“prawns”) in Jo’burg. The budget was lean ($30 million). No stars. Leading man Sharlto Copley had never acted in a feature before.
During horrific movies like this I squirm, clutch, scrunch, gasp, and gag. (It gets icky, much like David Cronenberg’s The Fly. And yes, this movie will be too much for most women.) Thanks to amazing VFX work, the human-scale aliens, executed on the level of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, interact seamlessly with humans (far more than in James Cameron’s Avatar). We wind up invested in two sympathetic alien characters who express their emotions mostly with their eyes. Reviews are as strong as any this year.
I shouldn’t be as excited by this movie. But I am, because films like this are getting more rare. They have to be financed independently, outside the studios. We want District 9 to score because right now the studio system is in grave danger. Execs are scared into risk-averse behavior like I’ve never seen before. I’ve been watching Hollywood a long time, and it has never been this bad. Trouble is, Hollywood is doubling down on the very behavior that is the most likely to turn out badly.
That’s why I want G.I. Joe to take a dive this weekend (sorry Lorenzo Di Bonaventura), not because I want Paramount to lose money but because I want the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go. One producer pal reports from his monthly PGA group that his colleagues agree that “nobody is reading anything.” That means that no one wants to take a chance on backing, advocating, or pushing anything forward. Paralysis has set in.
The studios are run by people who want to keep their jobs. By default, moviemaking is a risky business fraught with multiple things that can go wrong. So especially during an economic downturn, execs minimize risk by betting on pre-branded material that already has a proven audience. They enhance their safety zone by taking on partners, selling off rights, and adding elements (stars, VFX, action figures) that often cost more money. Then they soften the edges to try to appeal to a wider audience. In their search for franchises and tentpoles, they ignore the obvious: most of them were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix, Terminator and Raiders of the Lost Ark. So they wind up making movies like Land of the Lost,
Angels & Demons, Year One, Imagine That and Taking of Pelham 123. Those movies cost (and lost) a lot of money.
The NYT’s A.O. Scott suggests that Hollywood is infantilizing its audience. I would argue that while avoiding risk, the studios often forget what their customers really want: something new that they’ve never seen before.
So buy a ticket for District 9. Please.