Friday, January 22, 2010

Fight for nonhuman rights with a mech suit! - Thoughts on "District 9"

Once upon a time, Peter Jackson was hoping his friend Neill Blomkamp would direct the long in development limbo movie based upon "Halo". Sadly, that project was scrapped when the budget reached $145 million. Sorely disappointed, but not wanting to waste the creative energy that had been sparked by the project, Jackson went to Blomkamp and essentially said, "Here's 30 million dollars. Go have fun."
The result was "District 9", an expansion on one of Blomkamp's own short films, and it is
outstanding. It might just be my favorite movie of the past year.*
I could go on and on and on, but you need to get "District 9" in your queue
immediately. This is the first fantastic fiction film in a long time where, upon putting the DVD in my player, I honestly had no idea where it was going to go. No idea at all. Fellow sci-fi fans know what a big deal this is. I will try very hard to express how much this movie knocked me on my ass without spoiling anything (spoilers will be after the review itself).
Remember when the first teaser for "Avatar" came out and the general reaction was, surprisingly, a resounding "Well, okay, that's nice"? Yeah. Well, looking back, it turns out that his movie (that is to say, some guys in South Africa who were told they could go make whatever they wanted with thirty million dollars) stole James Cameron's thunder. That may be all that need be said.
I will say, however, that the character animation is incredible -- especially because I didn't know that it was animation I was looking at the first time I watched the movie. IMO, the best special effects are the ones you have to have pointed out to you because you did not notice them. Two fun facts: there is not a single "guy in a suit" alien (though there is literally one guy in a suit playing all the alien characters - the DVD special features are a trip in their own right), nor is the animation done by WETA. They happened to be busy with "Avatar" and the character animation duties were given to another studio in Canada.
But the visuals are not the main reason why I was blown away by "District 9". What won me over was the story and the characters. Good science fiction can take you to a new world, take you on an emotional journey, and it can make you think. I should say that this isn't a cheerful story (it is essentially "What Measure is a Nonhuman: the Movie" and that last shot is one hell of a tearjerker), but it's one that will stay with you for a long time. This is up there with "Duel" as far as exciting director debuts.
Let me spell it out for you:
"District 9" is to "Avatar" what "The Matrix" was to "The Phantom Menace". Yeah.
And on that note, here comes the spoilervision:
So what we have here is a science fiction action film about a man who had worked for an evil corporation composed of humans antagonizing an alien race. This man somehow becomes one of those aliens, and he naturally begins to sympathize with them. After much character development, the man turns against the humans. By the end of the film the protagonist is permanently transformed into an alien. Interesting coincidence, isn't it?
I liked "District 9" a lot more than "Avatar" (not that I didn't enjoy "Avatar" but... well, see the above Miller analogy) because, while the plots are remarkably similar in the broadest brushstrokes, it actually gave this scenario more thought. I'm wondering if it
is a coincidence. My theory is that "District 9" is the preemptive deconstruction of "Avatar". Consider:
1) In "Avatar", the Na'Vi are essentially an entire species of Mary Sues (Mary Sue is that super-duper little miss perfect awesome at everything character type everyone hates.) They're tall, they're beautiful, they ride on dragons doin' barrel-rolls and s**t, and they are, like, one with Pandora and stuff. Meanwhile, nearly all the humans in the Not-Weyland/Yutani Corporation are bastards. We do have a couple of nice humans (Dr. Grace, ect.), but we don't see any mean Na'Vi. You'd want to turn into a Na'Vi.
In "D9",
some humans are bastards, and indeed so are many of the prawns. This comes across better in the film than I can articulate here, but that little bit of depth adds so much.
2) The single most crucial difference: both films deal with a character who becomes a nonhuman Other.
In "Avatar", turning into the Other means you get to ride a dragon, be the baddest-a**ed Other there ever was, and make out with a cute Cat Girl.
In "District 9", it means
almost getting vivisected by your former colleagues.
It is a pretty chilling reality check on James Cameron's pretty neon fantasy as this is what losing one's humanity would actually entail. You're no longer human, and you haven't turned into a pretty alien, so who cares about you?
More has been written about this, and better as it's by a better writer, here and a follow-up here. And it's something to think about. Especially at the next lobster supper...

* - There are several important 2009 films I still have not yet seen, but I'm willing to bet that "D9" is pretty safe at the top of my list for the year.

Sketch of the day! I have started in on a new
Sketchbook and here I was testing to see if it liked watercolors. Click for big:
1.6.10 Sketchbook Page
Feederwatch Friday!
Had a scary, scary storm on Monday, which greatly affected my backyard's population. That said, I've never seen so many Juncos.
Rock Pigeon5
Black-capped Chickadee1
Tufted Titmouse2
American Robin2
Dark-eyed Junco7
House Sparrow15

Guess what happens a week from tomorrow? Apparently, it is Draw a Dinosaur Day! No real rules, just draw a dinosaur and share it on the website, I guess.


Zach said...

Yes, District 9 is incredible. It takes a turn toward action-movie at the end, but that's okay. The aliens are more believable than the Na'vi, too. They're bugs, not blue cat-people.

Emile said...

Avatar was a huge disappointment - entertaining while it lasted, but utterly insubstantial (it's a Mary Suetopia!). District 9 sounds fascinating though.