The Best Characters of 2009: Part Three

Christopher Johnson

Prawn of the Year

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.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part Two

Here’s part two, and nothing to spoil this time. Enjoy!



Let me make one thing clear right up front. Had this been any other year, I would be sitting here telling you about how awesome Dug was in Pixar’s Up. Don’t get me wrong, he is. “It is funny because the squirrel is dead” is now shorthand around Department H for ’ha ha only serious.’

Up is also a wonderful movie- certainly one of Pixar’s finest- but Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is refreshingly easy to watch. It’s wacky from end to end, the entire cast is great, and there’s not a single ironic bone in its narrative body. There’s no clumsy pop culture references that won’t make any sense in 10 years. It’s just a lot of fun.

Steve, Flint Lockwood’s talking monkey companion, is the movie’s id. This is a pretty mean feat for a movie that is 99% id, 1% ego, and only trace amounts of super-ego. Steve is somehow the film’s comic relief, even though it never really stops being funny. He’s also Flint’s unintentional moral compass, a Jiminy Cricket with aphasia and impulse control problems. In many cases he is the narrator, the flashing applause/laughter/cheer light for the live studio audience (“Excited! Excited!”). And he’s mad crazy for Gummi Bears.

Throw in that he’s voiced by the talented Neil Patrick Harris, and you’ve got the perfect comic foil. He’s got maybe 15-20 words total, and they’re mixed down to where you can barely make out that it’s Harris at all. That’s part of the joke, though, much like George Clooney’s performance of Sparky in South Park. Sony’s missing the boat if they don’t produce a Steve short to run in front of their next animated feature. If they can keep making movies like this, I’ll be there to see them.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part One

We saw a lot of movies in 2009. It was the first year in a while where we managed to make it to 99% of the movies we wanted to see. Ironically, working in movies sometimes makes actually going to the movies a pain in the ass. We persevered, though, and what a year for going to the movies. For the most part, anyway. We read a lot of comics, too, as can be evidenced by the minor explosion of bags, boards, and comic boxes currently residing in my living room.

Considering this at the turn of the new year, Janice suggested I write up my 10-ish favorite characters of the year. It was, in fact, one of many motivating factors to setting up the blog in the first place. I’ll drive myself nuts trying to assemble one shambling 4,000 word post, so I’m going to spread the fun into bite sized chunks.

One word of warning: There might be spoilers. I’m going to try not to, but some characters, including the one I’m starting with (hint, hint), are hard to talk about without involving their entire character arc. I’ll do my best to forewarn when I do so.



I'm running away with your wife

Ahhh, Star Trek. A movie both Janice and I were convinced was going to be awful while we were working on it that then turned out to be awesome. There are many great things about it and it’s filled with great characters. Karl Urban’s Bones tickled me especially, so perfect was his balancing act of bringing himself to the character while still staying faithful to the original.

Nero, though. Here’s the one player who we don’t know, who we don’t have any expectations from. Furthermore, he’s the catalyst, the driving force that gets us from the old to the new, and the chaotic ying to the yang of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime. He’s got a hard job here. He’s got to be threatening enough to put all this in motion, but not so overwhelming that he drowns out the other players. He can’t be Montalban, not when we have to be utterly and completely sold on the shell game that is making the audience accept the new cast.  To paraphrase Rusty in the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven, we’ve got to hate him and then forget him the moment he’s sucked into an artificial black hole. He’s got to be a whackjob, but not so memorable that geeks are quoting him instead of Zachary Quinto in 20 years.

“Hi Christopher, I’m Nero.”

Eric Bana attacks the role with gusto. He drives Nero from the creepily nonchalant line quoted above to Jeff Bridges-as-Obadiah Stane spittle-slinging levels of psychotic raving, and Nero moves us merrily along to his ultimate doom. Once he’s gone, he no longer matters, and our seat-filling butts are on board with the revised crew of the USS Enterprise. I could argue that it could’ve been anyone, any random player running any random character, and that might be so. But Nero owns his fate, both onscreen and off, and I don’t think we would have come out of last summer loving the ride so much otherwise.

(As an aside, I picked this specific picture because a) it’s a decent picture and b) it’s the single remaining shot of an entire sequence that haunted Janice’s nightmares during post production. Many weeks were spent going over Eric Bana’s naked, sweaty, lens flare-enhanced head and torso pixel-by-pixel, all for naught, though you can see it in the deleted scenes on the DVD/BRD.)