On Oscar Day: Cold Souls as the Antidote to Avatar (and Facebook tonight)

Ann saw Cold Souls for the first time last night and loved it. This was my second viewing, and it held up for me. Basically, the movie has Paul Giamatti, playing himself. Giamatti’s hung up on playing a role in a Chekov play, and after seeing an advert for Soul Storage in the New Yorker decides that the answer might be to divest himself of his soul. As a result he comes into contact with a Russian mule, played brilliantly by Dina Korzun, who is carrying souls into the U.S. for resale.

What follows is both serious and absurdist humor, and most definitely SF-Fantasy. The plot becomes more complicated, the characters gain nuance and depth. There are plenty of laughs in Cold Souls, but there is also plenty to think about, and plenty that will move you. In its thematic resonance and devotion to its characters it’s much more like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than the relatively bloodless Being John Malvokich.

Cold Souls is an indie film, but it’s not a small film. The way the first-time director and writer Sophie Barthes extrapolates the idea of storing and harvesting souls, hardwires it to real-world parallels like organ harvesting, and gives the apparatus involved with extraction the sleekness of Apple design is truly impressive. The movie fails if you don’t buy into the premise, no matter how interesting the situations and characters. But Barthes’ approach is flawless, in my opinion–and a great example of how you make a viewer (or reader) suspend disbelief.

Frankly, I thought this was the best SF movie of the year, not the awful Avatar or the good but ultimately disappointing District 9. So, if you want an antidote to the three hours of mindnumbing dumbness, recycled Cameron plots, and faintly veiled Dances-with-Wolves condescending, makes-no-sense bullshit that is Avatar, try Cold Souls.

Also, if you’re a facebook friend note that I’ll be facebooking about the Oscars tonight while they’re going on. Probably a couple of anchor status messages and then commenting in the thread. Hope you’ll join me–from the red carpet on.


  1. mastadge says

    Cold Souls was smart and very funny, but a bit too uneven and heavyhanded. Also I think Lucius commented that Paul Giamatti should’ve been played by Wallace Shawn, so I had that image stuck in my head the whole time I was watching.

    So while I enjoyed Cold Souls, didn’t care for Avatar and stopped caring about District 9 when it turned into a video game halfway through, my pick for best science fiction film of ’09 is Moon.

  2. says

    Heavyhanded? I’d totally disagree with that, as well as the uneven bit. Vehemently disagree. L is just dead wrong about Giamatti, I’m afraid.

    Moon I haven’t seen, but seems like familiar territory.


  3. mastadge says

    And thus we have further evidence that you and I are, in fact, two different people.

    Despite my reservations I did enjoy the movie and I hope your posting about it encourages more people to watch it.

    Moon is familiar territory, but it’s done well, and it kept me interested and entertained.

  4. JasonUresti says

    District 9 was a great comedic-action film, with a slight sprinkling of commentary. Which is what the director intended it to be, he called it 90 percent popcorn. Many had the expectation of something more, and I can see the film turning into the coolest Mech warrior video game since the early 90’s being a downer to those folks.

    Fan of the film or not, the lead actor deserves some recognition for his work as Wikus The reality he put into the character was superb (and possibly the reason people were fooled into thinking they weren’t watching and action movie)

    Moon was less interesting than it could have been. The device they choose to propel the story was quite conventional and less appealing than the initial suspect, and Moon ultimately brushes as gently against the most meaningful ideas it raises as District 9 does.


  5. Christian says

    I saw Cold Souls in the theater and liked it quite a bit (but my memory of it has faded just a little). It’s a visually stunning movie–all the clinical white and glass of the medical office is amazing. The pacing is excellent too: the movie hits a deliberate, wonderful flat note that corresponds to the emotional state of Giamatti’s character while at the same time building expectation. Punch Drunk Love has similar pacing–a feeling of stillness while somehow also building momentum. Maybe there’s something about a narrative built around a character in an absurdist situation that allows for a lot of really quiet moments (Sandler playing with a harmonium; Giamatti sitting in waiting rooms) while at the same time creating a sensation of pressure building, something about to explode. It helps that both characters are fairly unstable. Anyway, a lot of big movies have frenetic pacing that jumps from spectacle to spectacle–as if someone, somewhere determined that only quick movement from action sequence to action sequence can hold an audience’s attention (and maybe, for the most part, that’s true). The quieter, anxious moments in Cold Souls are really refreshing. The pacing allows for excellent scenes of extended dialogue too (or at least longer-than-usual exchanges), especially between Giamatti/Straithairn and Giamatti/Watson.

    (The first scene in Inglorious Basterds also has slower-than-usual pacing that allows for some great dialogue. The only other Best Picture nomination I’ve seen is Hurt Locker, which was highly episodic in its structure–and the protag a bit too Top Gun maverick for my taste. The dialog and pacing seemed geared for the teenage crowd, even if the movie also engaging and visually interesting).

    It’s been a while, but If I remember right there are scenes in which Giamatti’s character wanders about in a murky, rusty, dripping interior landscape that looks like it comes out of a 90s Metallica video. I can’t remember if the interior landscape represents his own repressed back story or the residual memories of someone else. This repeated sequence was perhaps the only part of the movie I found disappointing. It was supposed to carry a lot of weight, but I’m not sure it was fully clear what was happening. Or maybe it was eventually clear but felt evasive because the mysteries/information the images contained were doled out in such small, murky bits. Or maybe it was just that the art direction of those interior sequences looked like a music video compared to the stunning art direction in the primary, exterior world. And the pacing of those foggy interior scenes was also reminiscent of a music video–influenced by collage and jumpcuts–which was an unwelcome contrast to the pacing I enjoyed so much in the first half of the movie.

    But that’s a small, half-remembered, highly subjective quibble: I liked Cold Souls a lot too. (And apologies for defacing your blog with what amounts to a sloppy, halfway-coherent mini-essay with a tiny point, if any point).

  6. says

    Cold Souls had a great premise and some great acting (particulary Giamatti and Strathairn), but I thought it ran out of steam in the second half. I enjoyed it, but I prefer Eternal Sunshine or Being John Malkovich.

  7. says

    Mastadge: I don’t think the movie is perfect–I understand your points–just can’t reconcile “heavy-handed” with the movie I saw. I’d hate for someone to not see it thinking it was preachy or talky or whatever. I don’t think “heavy-handed” is the right description for your objections, is all.

    Aidan: I think all three movies are totally different, and perhaps I shouldn’t have used the other two for comparisons re tone. But what I was trying to get across re Eternal and Cold is that both movies could’ve been, well, cold, and weren’t. It’s easy to see the description for something like Cold Souls and think it’s a kind of experiment or postmodern movie, and it’s not. I also felt it held up, in that it continued to extend and explore the implications of the concept while grounding it in something real-world.

    Christian: I do agree re that murky scene, but on a second viewing for some reason I didn’t mind it. One of the most interesting things for me is that the movie does hold up on a second viewing.


  8. says

    First, thanks for mentioning Cold Souls. I like SF, I like Giamatti, never heard of this film.

    Second, I’ve also heard really, really good things about “Moon,” for example from William Gibson:


    Lastly, a brief Avatar roundup:

    1. Slavoj Zizek on Avatar


    Some bloviating (“Look! I am Slavoj Zizek! Watch as I demonstrate my knowledge of Warren Beatty’s “Reds” …”) and is rambling and not terribly well-written. But… interesting, I suppose.

    2. Ray Kurzweil on Avatar


    “I thought the story and script was unimaginative, one-dimensional, and derivative.”