Contrary to what you might think, working in visual effects since 1996 hasn’t ruined the movies for me. As far back as grade school, I had a basic understanding of how the magic worked, and I’ve generally been able to partition that knowledge away from my enjoyment of the end results. The only place it breaks is when the craft is bad; even then, I can give it a pass if storytelling redeems the effcts, at least until I hit the parking lot.
While I was watching District 9, probably right when the second act is giving way to the third, I had an epiphany. I realized, at the risk of summoning the dread ghost of Warren Ellis, that I was witnessing a sort of VFX-geek Singularity. It’s a moment a lot of people sitting in front of a lot of computers for a lot of years have been working towards.
I hadn’t just suddenly stopped thinking of Christopher Johnson, the movie’s alien co-protagonist, as a CGI construct. In that moment of minor awe, sitting in the dark, I came to the realization that I’d never thought of him as an effect. He was, to me, just another character, and the character I came away liking the most to boot. There’s not even a voice actor to take credit, given the way the alien language works– there’s just that model, and the artists behind it, creating the entire performance.
There’s a sequence in the movie where Christopher and Wikus (Sharlto Copley) have to work together to advance their separate goals. It comes off, if you take it out of context, as an oddball buddy cop story, a human and his bug-like, clicking partner. A well made sequel of a buddy cop movie, even, where the audience is already familiar with the characters, the characters are comfortable with each other, and you can just sit back and enjoy watching it all work. If only all human actors were so immediately engaging and memorable as the ones we cook up in the lab.