Monday, March 08, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #3

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.
- Automated MNU Instructional Voice (uncredited)

#3 - District 9 (2009)

Yes, not only did I think this was the third-best movie I've seen since the start of 2001, I think it's the best movie I've seen all year; thus, it would have gotten my Oscar vote. (More on this in a post to come.)

Also, for the record, this particular write-up is spoilerrific, so here's the obligatory SPOILER WARNING.

Why I liked it

OK, have you not noticed by now the trend of SF/fantasy films in this list? If not, then I guarantee that the last two are going to shock the heck out of you.

I noted in my previous write-up that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was SF, but not Asimovian societal-impact level SF. Well, this one is. Basically, the gimme question at the opening of the film is, what might have happened if aliens appeared over Johannesburg in 1982?

That's the gimme question -- the one the audience is supposed to allow you for free. One of the cool things about District 9 is that the film also proposes other questions, many of which it doesn't answer, leaving the audience to try to figure that out for themselves:

Why do the Prawns just sit in their ship, even when it's obvious that they're starving?

This isn't answered, and isn't even really addressed in the film, except that it becomes the justification to put the newly 'rescued' Prawns into District 9, originally intended as a temporary settlement where emergency care could be provided, immediately under the alien ship, but which, after nearly 30 years, has become an institutional slum to the point where MNU, the multinational corporation that has taken 'responsibility' for District 9, decides that the aliens need to be relocated.

(My own pet theory is that what we see isn't actually the entirety of the ship -- when the officers and other Prawn elites realized that the ship was running low on fuel, they made a decision to detach a smaller command-style module which could make it back to the Prawn homeworld, taking as many of their own as they could and leaving behind the equivalent of Douglas Adams's Golgafrichan B-Ark dwellers to fend for themselves -- except for one ethical scientist who chose to remain with the swabbies in the hopes of being able to find a way to synthesize enough fuel on Earth to be able to get the rest of the aliens home as well. As you'll see, this explanation works for other unanswered questions as well.)

Why don't the Prawns just use their uber-weapons and take over?

Though Wikus eventually demonstrates how much cool a Prawn battle-suit is capable of, and does so after basically zero training, it's also clear that a concerted effort by 'inferior' terrestrial military technology can overcome it. It's also likely that any Prawn that had such an idea was dealt with when he first started acting up, which would also tend to explain

a) why MNU goes into District 9 with military escort every time they go in force, and

b) why the Prawns seem so subdued and 'broken' as a race; they're accustomed to having the humans knock the rebellion out of them, regardless of how much it costs them

(It's also possible, given my own theory, that just about everyone who'd be capable of masterminding such a military operation left with the command module; showing these aliens overcoming a superior multi-national military force would be the 21st-century equivalent of having a bunch of rural high-school kids hold off the Soviet Army.)

It's also suggested, in the scene where the MNU guys torch a hovel that's hosting a Prawn hatchery, that MNU deliberately tries to keep the Prawn population down specifically to keep them from becoming numerous enough to develop into an organized military threat.

Also, the scene gets in a nice twist on the traditional abortion debate. On one hand, abortion foes will appreciate that the scene raises ethical hackles even in pro-choice viewers as Wikus explains that, while they don't kill the Prawn children, the eggs are fair game. On the other hand, the act itself doesn't fall anywhere on the existing abortion debate spectrum -- what MNU is doing is the equivalent of compulsory abortion, not the sort of abortion that pro-choice advocates...well...advocate for. (Consider the very different emotional message that would be present if MNU had been invited to destroy the hatchery by a Prawn couple who said they couldn't afford to raise the hatchlings.)

The fact that the film doesn't feel the need to tie up every single loose end, but leaves some things unexplained (though with plausible explanations that the audience can then discuss later) is a very big part of the attraction of this film for me. The film expects that its audience will want to interact intellectually with the world that it's presenting rather than trying to handwave or techno-babble away everything that would interfere with having a nice, neat, packaged ending. It's a movie that presupposes an audience that's looking for something more than just passive entertainment, and as such it doesn't insult or belittle the audience's intelligence.

Well, maybe it does, for a few folks. After all, one of the biggest criticisms of District 9 is that it once again, at least in the minds of some viewers, presents the 'white people are inherently evil and dominating' trope that many, especially on the right, find condescending and insultingly 'politically correct'. All I can say to these folks is, do you not notice that the Prawns are taken advantage of by the Nigerians every bit as much as they are by the white scientists and middle-managers of MNU? It's an example of people deliberately looking for a reason to be upset, rather than people identifying a real flaw in the film. (Or do you want to argue that power hierarchies don't actually form where different societies are in close proximity?)

The other, and frankly even more irritating criticism of District 9 is that it's just Avatar with a less-expensive skin; both are about white guys who enter an alien culture and ultimately save the day.

This, frankly, is borderline insulting. Anybody paying attention should be able to see that Avatar and District 9 are very different films:

- Avatar features a damaged human who travels to an alien world where he interacts with the local culture and learns their ways. Ultimately, he falls in love with one of the aliens, becomes one of them, and delivers them from the human interlopers on their world. In the end, he finds redemption and healing.

- District 9 features a clueless human who travels to an alien slum ensconced within a human world, obliviously bemoaning that the aliens don't seem to have a culture. He is exposed to a chemical that slowly begins to transmogrify him into an alien, which separates him from his human love. His transformation makes him the target of every human power bloc in the area, and must hide out in the alien slum, where he reluctantly becomes party to a plot to try and get one alien (and his son) away from the slum to, maybe, deliver the rest of the aliens trapped on Earth. In the end, he is lost to humanity (the film uses a documentary style as a device, and ends with the admission that no human knows the true fate of the protagonist, though some have theories), and only time will tell if he can ever go back to being even part of what he once was.

So, yeah, both guys turn into aliens. That makes them exactly the same fucking movie.

Lastly, this movie does in spades something I touched upon in my write-up of Fellowship of the Ring: the protagonist of the film, Wikus Van Der Merwe, is not a hyper-competent action hero who wins every fight and rises above every challenge through his sheer awesomeness. At the start of the film, he's an arguably incompetent middle-manager who holds his position through nepotism rather than any shred of talent, and it's that very incompetence that makes the initial crisis, from which all other action in the movie flows, possible and believable. Yet his experiences allow him, even if just for a moment, to become the kick-ass action hero the story needs at the climax, where the fate of Christopher Johnson and his plan to rescue the aliens stranded on Earth is decided. I wrote somewhere (but now can't find it) that, while I didn't know at the time how good District 9 was as a movie, I did know that it was exactly the kind of story I wish I'd been involved with making.

That last is really the only reason I need to rank this movie #3; everything else is just details.

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