Four Films: How To Change Shape

Catching up with more films, and enjoying spotting how different directors handle the same themes. In this case, metamorphosis.

Inception. Seen at the Prince Charles cinema for £2.50. It’s by Christopher Nolan, and has his very recognisable style: masculine disorientation, confusing battle scenes, a Borges-esque preference for ideas over characterisation, intellectual coldness, aesthetically pretty actors in sharp suits. No sex scenes, no silliness, no mucking about. Though Tom Hardy does sneak in a little camp aside. During a siege, he suddenly produces an oversized weapon and tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ‘You’ve got to dream a little bigger, darling’.

One location is meant to be Mombasa, but anyone who’s been to Tangier will recognise the very Moroccan Grand Socco and medina, with a few Kenyan drapes. I’m quite pleased about this. I may not always follow what’s going on in the film, but I know now that I can spot Tangier in disguise.

What I would like to know is why Mr Nolan couldn’t just set these scenes in Tangier anyway, given the city’s association with Westerners escaping into dreams. The two main literary biographies of Tangier even allude to this in their titles: Michelle Green’s The Dream at the End of the World and Iain Finlayson’s Tangier: City Of The Dream.

Even Nolan’s special effects are in keeping with his clean, non-silly style. Tom Hardy’s character has the ability to change into other people, though while other directors would reach for CGI morphing effects or a touch of latex, Nolan chooses to cut simply to a mirror, then back again. Transformation done.

No such luck for the protagonist of District 9, which I watch on DVD while staying in Suffolk with my sci-fi loving father (February 3rd-7th). I also see Avatar while I’m there. Both films have the human lead turning into an alien: Avatar’s hero gets an instant and entirely wished-for change into a beautiful blue humanoid. District 9’s anti-hero, meanwhile, becomes one of the film’s Lovecraftian and tentacled ‘prawns’, and does so very slowly and very reluctantly, with gooey prosthetics (fingernails coming off) added to CGI. If the aliens of one film swapped with the aliens in the other, the stories would be entirely different.

Avatar uses sci-fi to address colonialism and invasion, while District 9 does it for immigration and apartheid. The military in both cases is the enemy, and there’s a lot of White Racial Guilt to read between the lines. It’s such a shame, though, that they both end with up with the standard Hollywood Final Battle between lone hero and lone villain, both with an Exo-Suit.

Finally, I see Black Swan at the Muswell Hill Odeon. I’m happy to report that Natalie Portman does not have to deal with an Exo-Suit in the finale. But conveniently for this diary entry, she does undergo a transformation into The Other which combines elements of all of the above.

She gets the revulsion of shedding fingernails from District 9, the glances of change in mirrors from Inception, and the smooth, beautiful CGI of Avatar for the final scenes of consenting change. Most impressive of all are the fluid ripplings of flesh to feather that are actually choreographed to go with the ballet music. Angela Carter would have loved it.

Black Swan is vastly enjoyable: a histrionic horror film that’s been cunningly smuggled into Oscar territory. And as I’ll always prefer dance scenes to shoot-outs, it’s my favourite of the four.


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