Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

New Year, New Me: 5 films about transformation to see in 2023

As Christmas Day fades into memory, the hang-overs and calories linger on with us into the grey, drizzly skies of late-December. But on the horizon, a symbolic chance for change comes into view: a fresh start as we all turn our calendars from 2022 to 2023.

With the lesser mortals around you inevitably jumping aboard ‘New Year, New Me’ fads ahead of midnight on January the 1st, maybe you are short of ideas, struggling to think how on Earth you might improve on perfection? Well, perhaps you could take some inspiration from the world of cinema; and five famous transformations committed to film.     

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Over the last three decades, this has turned into a Christmas staple, passed between generations as faithfully as the story it is based upon. There have been many – arguably too many – adaptations of Charles Dickens’ seasonal ghost story over the years, and certainly there have been many which were more faithful to the source material in terms of tone and content. But I would suggest few if any have embodied the spirit of its message better.

Only in a world where the rest of the population are colourful fleece-coated creatures, could the transformation of Michael Caine’s archetypal miser – snarling and sniping at the festivities around him – into a loving pillar of the community come to life so vividly. As well as this contrast between the grey scornful Scrooge and his vibrant co-stars, the musical numbers help take the lessons and move them beyond a Christmas tale. 

In another life, I would occasionally catch one of my best friends singing tunes from The Muppet Christmas Carol in the middle of summer. At the time, I thought it was mad – but a few life-lessons of my own down the line, she was far wiser than I ever gave her credit for. Scrooge’s transformation is about much more than learning to love Christmas as a day – the importance of helping and caring for those around him is something he maintains at every moment. As the film’s signature song – It Feels Like Christmas – would have it, “when you do your best for love it feels like Christmas,” and “the message if we hear it, is make it last all year”. That’s as fine a New Year’s resolution as you could hope to make.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Not every transformation is for the better, of course. It is worth keeping in mind that life experiences, and the choices we make along the way, can sometimes take us down dark paths that will leave us with wounds that may never heal.

Paul Verhoeven’s re-imagining of Robert A. Heinlein’s source material – generously regarded as ‘jingoistic propaganda’ by some (and an outright fascist wet-dream by others) – reworks the plot as an examination of a fascist utopia, as a means to underline the actual nightmare that would deliver. We follow Johnny Rico on a journey through the belly of this beast – starting out as the closest thing we get to a relatable sceptic. At the beginning of the film, class-room scenes show him as not taking life particularly seriously, and coming dangerously close to asking some unwanted questions about ‘citizenship’ and voting rights being contingent on military service.

Despite these healthy misgivings, the pursuit of hormonal young love sees him sign up. Throughout a brutal, horrific campaign of colonisation – during which friends and lovers are torn in half by insectoids defending themselves – Johnny is broken and reshaped, time and again. His individuality, and relatability, is stripped away as he is shaped into an unfeeling cog whose existence is now aligned wholly to maintaining the status-quo. Pushing this character, who early on we felt was the closest to representing us in this inhuman world, through such a transformation is a terrifying insight into what could lay in wait for us, or future generations. Should we continue to submit to the powers that be, for our own security or privilege, we each could become something monstrous. To avoid that kind of transformation, maybe make a New Year’s resolution to seek out your nearest branch of Antifa.

District 9 (2009)

Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi mockumentary is presented as partially found-footage, as well as featuring fictional interviews, news footage, and video from surveillance cameras. It is innovative in its visual storytelling, pioneering new ways to explore age-old themes of humanity, xenophobia and social segregation.

Reworking elements of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, among other famous stories, the central narrative follows Wikus van de Merwe – a bumbling bureaucrat, who ends up taking the opposite journey to Johnny Rico. Sent into District 9 to essentially evict the race of aliens he uses the slur “prawns” to describe, Wikus clearly carries a number of prejudices about the insect-like humanoids, which enable him to do his job and still sleep at night. This includes tricking several into signing documents they cannot read, and lying to them about the prison facility they will soon be deported into.

Things turn on their head, however, when Wikus throws caution to the wind, examining what he believes to be contraband. It shoots a black, viscous matter into his face and gradually this material transforms Wikus into one of the people he previously had no problem sending to a ‘camp’. Alongside some cutting-edge gore, exceptional shoe-string CGI, and pulsating action sequences, this story neatly uses our link to Wikus to consider our own lives – and the people our society might neglect or abuse. How would we feel if it were our necks on the line? In the New Year, it might be worth all of us trying to see things from another perspective, and consider fighting for – rather than against – the rights of single mothers, unemployed people, disabled people, or migrants crossing The Channel fleeing war, famine and poverty.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I don’t know how much there is to be said about this film that hasn’t been said already, but it had to be in here for two reasons. It features one of cinema’s most famous transformation sequences, to the extent it picked up the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup due to Rick Baker’s work. And second, while I wanted a werewolf film for this list, my first choice would have been Ginger Snaps; but I’d like to do a longer read on that some other time, so here we are.

That’s not to say John Landis’ film is by any stretch ‘second-best’, of course. This is one of my favourite movies of all time after all, with some warm memories wrapped up in its bone-shattering agony. Along with the fact it was one of the first horrors I was shown by my parents, it also supplies a wonderful satire of the bitter, twisted little island I once called home. In particular, rural life; often talked about as some idyllic state of being by outsiders, but realistically tinged with a darkness.

The first transformation in An American Werewolf in London – the one I will talk about here – is actually a shift in atmosphere; one that any stranger who has stumbled into an English country pub will be familiar with. While the inhabitants of the fatefully named Slaughtered Lamb initially try to seem welcoming, offering two American visitors tea, and telling jingoistic jokes, the room falls silent and the smiles collapse into scowls when the newcomers ask why there is a pentangle on the wall. The art of the scene is that we always felt this could happen – any conversation with a stranger in the proximity of alcohol could soon devolve into hostility if you unknowingly mention the wrong thing. But what is the wrong thing in this case anyway? An artefact the locals believe will protect them from a monster – but some social conditioning means that even though they know it is necessary, they are ashamed to admit to it. Such is the weight of this embarrassment that they would gladly feed two strangers to a werewolf, rather than live with the ‘shame’ saving their lives by being superstitious might bring. What might we take away from this ugly transition for a (admittedly tenuous) New Year’s resolution? Well, either we might be a little less sensitive to looking silly – try and move beyond social conventions if it means helping someone, even at the risk of being mocked. Or, when visiting new places, try to be respectful of the local customs?

Avatar (2009)

As I have mentioned before, one of the worst habits critics have is feeling the need to prove we are smarter than the film in front of us. I have to plead guilty to that when I first encountered Avatar in 2009. Tiresome contrarian that I was, I queued for a ticket to the screening of the film the whole world seemed to be waiting in line for – and eventually sat in the middle of possibly the only full house of a regular screening I have ever attended. And I did it all with the pre-conceived notion that I would find some morally or ideologically objectionable morsel, that would delegitimise the fun everyone else was having. It has taken me far too long to admit that Avatar was in fact a blockbusting masterpiece. Perhaps it helped that over the last decade, more people have come to argue the film was ‘overrated’, citing its “lack of cultural imprint” as proof it was over-long, and lacking in substance. The contrarian still lurking in me somewhere probably isn’t very comfortable being in such asinine company. But let’s get to what I said at the time.

Jake Sully is a nothing on Earth. A paraplegic former marine in a militarised dystopia, where humans have exhausted the planet’s resources, he is seen as having nothing more to offer. After a robbery sees his more successful brother killed, Jake is brought on board an experiment to get humans closer to a native species in a planet they are looking to plunder. As the only person with the genetic code to use an expensive, artificially grown body for one of the Na’vi, Jake is recruited in spite of his lack of scientific knowhow. Initially compliant to both the orders of the military, and the team of embedded scientists whom they ‘protect’, Jake soon learns he has to take a side, or he will essentially become complicit in a genocide. So, he takes what knowledge he has of the world he comes from, and helps lead the Na’vi in a battle to repel their colonisers.

On first viewing, my take was that the idea a nobody would eventually lead the native population was a continuation of a tired narrative trope, where white people learn to be better natives than the natives. I think that’s a massive oversimplification though. First, his being a ‘nobody’, discarded by human society is important – had he been a ‘success’ within the awful world he comes from, the chances are he would have imbibed its ideology fully, and been less likely to challenge it. Put Elon Musk in that Na’Vi, and you can show him all the pretty waterfalls and wonderous animals in Pandora but he’s still going to see it as right and natural to purge your species so he can get the unobtanium necessary to fuel his next fleet of self-destructing cars. Second, Jake isn’t better at being a Na’vi – he supplies them with information they had no access to, and helps them understand how to counteract modern human warfare that they have no experience dealing with.

This is not a white saviour narrative, but a suggestion that he – and we through him – move beyond the liberal bleating of recognising different cultures without ‘interfering’, and reach out to those struggling against imperialism to see how best we can support them. Not through supporting military adventurism, or anthropologically racist ‘re-education’ programmes to help different cultures ‘adapt’ to a white norm. But by striking out at the sources of injustice close to us, which we know most about. Jake’s transformation is not simply stepping into a new body or running away to the forest, but about moving from an atomised and cruel way of life, into an understanding that all things and all struggles are interconnected. In terms of a New Year’s resolution, we might also try to see how we are connected to the world’s problems, and its solutions; even if it is a small action a million miles from somewhere like Pandora, making an impact. In my case, I think I might also want to take a lesson from my experiences with Avatar, and try to keep an open mind.

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