Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Us Among Aliens Among Us: Avatar and District 9

I had the curious fortune to see James Cameron's Avatar and Neill Blomkamp's District 9 within days of one another. While I'm not really sure that District 9 did anything but confirm my initial opinion of Avatar, Avatar's flaws certainly deepened my appreciation of District 9. 


I saw Avatar in 3D on a "normal" theater screen -- no IMAX for me (but the IMAX they use for feature films hardly qualifies as proper IMAX). The visuals are breathtaking, yes, but here's the thing -- you get used to them after a while. That should be a good thing, since the visuals shouldn't distract from the story. In Avatar, however, the story is so old hat, it needs blocking badly. For all intents and purposes, Avatar is a CGI-heavy remake of Dances with Wolves as seen through the lens of FernGully: The Last Rainforest, with a little Braveheart thrown in for good measure. It's the precipice of the "What You People Need is a Honky" trope, wherein the White Knight teaches the People of Color how Things Are Done.

Somewhere in Avatar's fourth or fifth act (the movie has so much rising action in its 162 minute runtime that it borders on vertiginous), after human marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) uses his remote-controlled alien avatar to ingratiate himself to the denizens of Pandora, a strange boredom settles in. The plot has given up all of its secrets already -- when it comes down to choosing between the evil corporation hellbent on exploiting Pandora's resources and the tribal aliens (the Na'vi) that stand in their way, Sully's obviously going to side with not-evil. Cameron's world-building and the game-changing CGI have already done their work to a point -- they impress, but they don't add emotional resonance. Yes, it's very bad that the evil corporation ruins the environment and wants to displace the Na'vi and it's very good that Sully learns important lessons about ecological unity and honor. And? So? Maybe Avatar would resonate more if the corporation wasn't so evil, if the Na'vi weren't so honorable, if Sully wasn't such an empty receptacle for the Na'vi teachings (he actually comments on his "empty head" during his introduction to the Na'vi chief).I think Cameron wants the conflict to be complex -- Giovanni Ribisi's corporate exec looks perpetually ambivalent when giving damning orders -- but it never is and therefore the plot never surprises.

There are funny moments and thrilling moments and sexy moments (when Sigourney Weaver's avatar first shows up, I found that I can be attracted to a computer graphic). There are moments of pure awe and wonder. There are moments of none-too-veiled political commentary. But that's all the Avatar's impact is -- moments. These bits and pieces impress but don't last; they don't connect to the whole (which is ironic, actually, given some of the sci-fi/ecological concepts put forward in the film).

District 9

Sunday night, I saw District 9 for the first time, my wife for the second. At the film's end, as the credits rolled up my television, my wife turned to me, buried her head in my chest, and began sobbing deeply. She didn't stop for several minutes. My feelings did not run as deeply (I apparently cry only during scenes where families are reunited and at the very end of When Harry Met Sally), but I understood. It's a depressing film, a damning one, but also a brilliant one.

Like Avatar, District 9 is about a no-good corporation's efforts to relocate an alien species and the human caught between the two sides by virtue of weird science. However, director Neill Blomkamp layers on additional complexities. Here the aliens, derogatorily called "Prawns," are refugees whose ship showed up over Johannesburg, South Africa over twenty years ago. In those two decades, they've found nothing but hate and, worse, indifference. Even though the Prawns have been forced to live in filthy slums at the edge of the city, their human neighbors feel it is not far away enough, so a new settlement (no better than a concentration camp, one character admits) has been created. The corporation MNU has moved in to enforce the Prawns' migration (and scavenge whatever alien tech they find).

The Prawns themselves have largely settled into depression, accepting their poverty, and finding their few joys in in-fighting and cat food abuse. What do they have to look forward to anyway? Whoever isn't ignoring them or hating them is exploiting them. In one corner of the Prawn settlement, a contingent of Nigerian gangsters run all manner of criminal enterprises -- weapon trafficking, interspecies prostitution, gambling, black market goods, anything that might turn a profit. MNU has taken on the resettlement contract because they are also one of the world's largest arms developers. They want to unlock the secrets of the powerful Prawn energy weapons, which only respond to Prawn DNA.

In the middle of all of this is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a South African bureaucrat who accidentally gets dosed with a Macguffin, which begins to rewrite his genetic code with Prawn DNA. The transformation would do David Cronenberg proud (it parallels Seth Brundle's in The Fly in some ways). Unlike Avatar's Sully, who can choose to exist in either the human or Na'vi worlds, Wikus is accepted by neither the humans (who see him as a guinea pig) nor the Prawns (who treat him with suspicion). District 9 also sidesteps making Wikus the Great White Hero. In fact, without Wikus's bumbling early in the film, one Prawn (given the human name of Christopher Johnson) might have carried out a two-decades-in-the-making plan to head home. Eventually Wikus does attempt to rectify his blunder, but his selfish drive to fix his own problem creates additional issues.

District 9's one significant flaw is one shared with Avatar -- the evil corporation is just too effing evil. Once MNU discovers that Wikus has been infected, they strap him down and begin a none-too-subtle mixture of medical experimentation and outright torture. Consider the stakes -- a whole bounty of alien technology that no human has ever been able to wield... until now. Why alienate (no pun intended) someone who is already sympathetic to the corporation's needs and desires? It would have been nothing for them to pretend friendship with Wikus to get what they want. Instead, they go straight for sadism and cease treating him as even vaguely human, even as he begs for compassion. No wonder he eventually sides with the Prawns, leading MNU to heavy losses in personnel, resources, and profit.

Blomkamp ends District 9 on a series of ambiguous notes, with the future of this mess uncertain. What is certain is that he's not that fond of humanity, even as he shares some understanding for why we act as we do. Without that empathy, District 9 would ring false, I think. Instead, it hurts like a motherf**ker.

Incidentally, I highly recommend my friend John Kenneth Muir's review of District 9. One of John's more infuriating traits is his ability to state my own feelings on a film with a greater depth of knowledge than I possess. I realize this is through no fault of his own -- his position just happens to line up with mine. In his analysis of District 9, John brings in comparisons both obvious (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Graham Baker's film Alien Nation) and surprising (Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi satire Robocop and the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). I dug it lots.

To Sum Up

Asking the same complexities of Avatar that exist in District 9 is ridiculous. Avatar follows the Campbellian "Hero's Journey." District 9 is a tragedy with action sequences. However, Avatar's excessive runtime demands a more complex film or it wastes the viewer's time. I only have so much patience for a film that builds in predictable ways to a predictable conclusion, especially one that wants very much to be revolutionary.


Robert Ring said...

I agree with 99% of what you're saying, but I see Avatar in a different light. Yes, its story is both unoriginal and predictable. Yes, its merit lies fully in its visual effects. However, I don't think you give it enough credit for how revolutionary it is, and it furthers the movie's theme, however standard that story may be. And on that note, the story isn't bad (and I know you didn't say it was), it's just not particularly strong. Still, I think the points you make are perfectly valid. For me, the visuals are so amazing that they make up for the movie's undeniable flaws.

As for District 9, I think you're pretty much right on, though I would argue that it doesn't need to nix the "evil corporation" theme like Avatar should have done. District 9 was about the horror of Wikus' transformation -- not only the body horror but the fact that he was becoming that which he despised. If he had belonged to a corporation that genuinely thought it was helping the aliens, that would have weakened the harrowing nature of his transformation.

Nate Y. said...

Amazing visual or no, Avatar, in its current form, was not worth all of its 2 hours and forty minutes. The visuals are amazing, but I'd become inured to them before the two-hour mark. At that point, Cameron needed to pull out a new trick, like a strong story or an unexpected twist, and he didn't.

You're right about District 9 and I don't think I actually made my point about the corporation. My real problem is that, for a film so complex and character-driven, MNU's brutality only served the plot and didn't feel "real." It wasn't a human motivation or a corporate motivation driving them -- it was Blomkamp's motivation to get on with it.