Two allegorical sci-fi films. Avatar, James Cameron’s metaphor for the oppression of the Native Americans. District 9, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s rendering of the horrors of apartheid. Both heralded by critics and fans alike. Both nominated for Best Film at the Oscars. Avatar debuted to huge expectations after fifteen or so years and a budget upward of 300 million. The little sci-fi movie that could, District 9, was made in six months for a lean 26 million by a first-time filmmaker. The movie shouldn’t have been able to compete with Avatar on any level.
I maintain D-9 kicks Avatar’s pretentious blue butt. Here’s why:
Movie poster tag lines:
Avatar: “Enter the World.”
D-9: “You are not welcome here.”
Okay, neither is exactly “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.” But D-9 at least hints at some conflict. Avatar sounds like an IMAX poster inviting you to journey to the deepest oceans and check out the cool, blind fish.
Avatar: Voiceover narration! Don’t get me started on VO in the movies. You’ve got 1,057 ways to tell a story on film–it IS a visual and aural medium–and you narrate? Demerits also for Sam Worthington’s slipping accent, somewhere between a tough Brooklyn guy and that dude that does the “Australian for beer,” commercials.
D-9: We open on a spaceship hovering over Johannesburg. Documentary-style talking heads tell us how we got here, starting with the aliens who showed up 30 years before. Efficiently dispenses with the backstory and sets up the starkly realistic tone of the whole film.
Avatar: No quarrel with the supercool new tech Cameron and crew spent so much time and money on. The CGI is flawless, the look itself a visual filmgasm. But the story? Best summed up by The Player-style review “Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully.” Both fine films, but I’d already seen them.
D-9: Yeah, the set-up sounded like Alien Nation, a fun film in itself though completely different in tone. But the South African setting and accents gave D-9 a leg up on freshness from the start. Not having any known stars? Even the lead could die at any time. As the movie progressed, I felt like I had truly entered a new world, one where boundaries and morals and story tropes were tossed violently out the window and anything could happen. And it did.
Avatar: Fairly cool. Some wicked Na’vi fighting skills. But as a friend pointed out, these Pandorans spend most of their time aloft in trees. Why not just have their dragon/beasts pick up giant boulders and drop them on the helicopter blades? And it was here, when practically everyone was dying and the pretty CGI planet was being torn up, that I first really noticed: I’m just not feeling much of anything. I know what’s going to happen. A bunch of secondary characters are going to die and then what’s-her-Gaia-stand-in will swoop in and save the day. And what took her so damn long?
D-9: Adding to the sense that anything could happen and you really didn’t know what the hell–the alien weapons. Their power is hinted at early on when a tube is used to blow pigs and cows and then prawns to holy shit! But when they break out the serious firepower and we learn what the prawn weaponry can really do in the right, er, hand, stunningly jarring chaos ensued.
And the moral of the story is:
Avatar’s “Native Na’mericans” are pretty, in a blue sort of way. They have sleek, Nautilus-toned bodies and intriguingly-placed loin cloths. They’re like us, only taller, longer, more arboreal. And their spiritual advancement so exceeds ours we might as well be insects worshipping slight insect gods. What’s not to love?
Meet the Prawns of D-9. A race of worker drones from a hive society, the creatures are too stupid to even feed themselves when their queen dies. Prawns are not remotely pretty; they’re like what happens when larval insects mate with Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama. Set loose in refugee camps, they respond by scavenging food and stealing and brawling. They’re not enlightened and have nothing to teach us. In fact, they’re kind of just like us, at our most base.
And therein lies the real genius of D-9. The film dares to suggest that beings other than our own tribe don’t have to be transcendantly superior in order not to be oppressed and exploited. It’s relatively easy to stand against the oppression of a beautiful, spiritually-evolved people. But look the Prawns in their slithering tentacle faces and say, “You are a being worth my respect. I will defend your right to your disgusting way of life with my life.”
Then you’ll know you’ve evolved, just as allegorical storytelling has evolved to where it doesn’t have to be simplistic or beat you over the head with its underlying themes in order to have an impact.
Next up on Devlin’s blog:
The Cult of Archimedes’ Death Ray