"Avatar" Versus "District 9 "


By Wil Forbis

March 1, 2010

"Avatar" and "District 9," two science fiction films released in 2009 would at first seem like ideal subjects to compare and contrast. Both movies took a high-minded look at how mankind might interact with and alien species and and as a result, both escaped the glutinous sci-fi ghetto and were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. However, on close inspection, one discovers that while there may be much to compare between the two movies, there's little to contrast. To illustrate, let me offer a concise synopsis of "Avatar."

"Avatar" follows the exploits of a human protagonist working for a behemoth corporation embodying the worst traits of the military-industrial complex. Our hero is assigned the task of convincing a group of aliens to migrate from their current home to a less desirable locale. In this process, the protagonist is himself "transformed" into an alien and he slowly begins to sympathize with them, eventually turning against his human brethren. The film rushes towards a finale in which two combatants --- one human, one alien (one ensconced in a giant mechanical exoskeleton) --- face off in mortal combat."

Now let's consider "District 9."

"District 9" follows the exploits of a human protagonist working for a behemoth corporation embodying all the worst traits of the military-industrial complex. Our hero is assigned the task of convincing a group of aliens to migrate from their current home to a less desirable locale. In this process, the protagonist is himself "transformed" into an alien and he slowly begins to sympathize with them, eventually turning against his human brethren. The film rushes towards a finale in which two combatants --- one human, one alien (one ensconced in a giant mechanical exoskeleton) --- face off in mortal combat."

I can't recall any pair of modern movies that so closely mirror each other. In the realm of music there are theorists who postulate that every possible melody has already been written; perhaps the same thing has happened with movie plots.

There are, of course, some differences between the two movies. Jake Sully, the protagonist in "Avatar," is a cripple, a conceit used to explain his pronounced interest in merging his consciousness into the more functional avatar body. "Avatar" takes place on a far off moon of the future while "District 9" is set on an alternate version of modern-day Earth, specifically in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. In "Avatar," the main relationship between the protagonist and the most prominent alien is deeply romantic; in "District 9" it barely passes for a friendship and one more in line with "The Odd Couple" than Huck and Jim.

But these are minor departures. In the broad strokes, the films are near twins and their similarities are only augmented by their shared political agenda. Both movies present their main villain in the form of a Halliburton-like corporation driven by greed and both films use an alien species to make allegorical commentaries on racism, segregation and classism. "Avatar" expands its critique to include an environmental component; in the movie, humans have plundered their home planet to the point of destruction but have learned nothing from the experience. Of course, when presented fairly and realistically, none of these critiques are without merit. But it's in the handling of their respective agendas where I think disparitiesstart to appear between the two films.

When viewing avatar "Avatar," no time need be wasted in ascertaining the moral compass of the characters. Sully is at first a little wounded, confused, but there's little doubt he will eventually right himself and join the forces of goodness. The two main scientists in charge of the Avatar program (played Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore) exhibit variations on the same theme: their dedication to knowledge makes them blind to the motivation of their corporate benefactor, but you know eventually they'll come up on the right side. The bad guys, on the other hand, are practically boiling over with bile and pestilence. Mercenary Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang (one of the great, underutilized actors of the past 30 years), condenses every stereotype of military machismo and human douchebaggery into a tense, over-testosteronated package of rippling muscle that's perennially on the verge of erupting. Mousy and well coiffed Giovanni Ribissi's Administrator Selfridge is a perfect bureaucratic counterpart to Lang's career soldier: a soulless yuppie, torn from the pages of Bret Easton Ellis's literary eviscerations of 80s culture and flung into the future.

The Na'vi, the alien race inhabiting the moon the humans want to plunder, have been so thoroughly commented on in reviews of the movie that there's little to add. Suffice to say they are a flawless embodiment of Western man's romantic idealization of the tribal savage: communitarian, egalitarian, completely in tune with nature and ruled simultaneously by reason and spirituality.

"District 9" paints its characters with more shades of gray. Protagonist Wikus van de Merwe is one of the unlikeliest heroes (if the term 'hero' even applies) in recent cinema. Klutzy and shallow, he maintains his prejudices against aliens and his faith in his fellow man long past the point that the evidence will support them. Even late in the film he's willing to knock his alien compatriot, Christopher Johnson, on the skull in a desperate bid to achieve his goals. And the alien, insectoid "Prawns" while generally likable, are far removed from the noble, tribal Na'vi. If anything, the Prawns, with their addiction to cat food and general bickering nature struck me as kind of... ghetto. (The point being, one presumes, that if you force a group of "people" into a ghetto, they will begin acting appropriately.)

It's "District 9's" handling of the alien Prawns that makes it the superior film. Obviously the moral of both movies is that we should not reflexively judge those who appear different to be our inferiors or enemies. The flaw with "Avatar" is that the aliens don't look all that different, in fact, they're generally gorgeous! It's as if director James Cameron thought, "I'm not sure moviegoers will be able to relate to weird looking aliens, so I'll make sure mine are a amalgamation of Smurfs and actors from 'Cats.'" "District 9" has enough faith that we (the audience) can feel some sympathy for members of an alien race who would not look out of place on an Asian seafood platter. (Not that it's a terrific leap; Spielberg's ET was hardly the most aesthetically pleasing specimen.) "Avatar" feels the need to hold our hand and guide us towards its message. "District 9," while not perfect in this regard, is willing to take the chance that the audience will arrive at the correct conclusion without excessive prodding.

There's one shared aspect of both films I struggle to comment on, and this is their dark view of human nature. In "Avatar" and "District 9", humans are the bad guys --- these are movie Westerns told from the point of view of the Indians. As someone who's always complaining about Hollywood predictability, I have to give credit to this quite bold reformulation. That said, the "bad human" characters (and the majority are bad) come across as cartoonish, utterly blind to the humanity of the aliens (no pun intended.) "District 9" nods towards the existence of a human led alien rights movement, but makes clear that most people are quite contemptuous of the Prawns. (To which I have to wonder, "Really? 20 years after a spaceship descends from the sky and completely alters man's understanding of his place in the universe, people are complaining because aliens are taking their welfare?") "Avatar," in turn, argues that the only way a human can relate to an alien is by literally becoming one. Of course, one can point to innumerable events throughout history that illustrate man's ability to dehumanize his fellow man in the interest of survival or greed (European settlers versus Indians, for instance) but I think to apply that historical behavior to the future, or even the present*, denies that there has been any moral evolution during man's development. Would the South African government in "District 9" really hand over the maintenance of stranded aliens to a giant corporation? And in "Avatar": even if one could assemble a band of mercenaries so amoral as to be willing to decimate the Na'vi, is it unreasonable to expect that there would be some civilian watchdog group monitoring the whole process? Call me a starry eyed optimist, but I think we humans are better than that.

* No doubt, by making this comment, I'm setting myself up for various condescending e-mails explaining to me that this dehumanization still occurs, pointing to the Iraq war or corporate exploitation of Africa to make their case. But my point is that a) both such scenarios, and likely any that can be referenced, contain a moral complexity surpassing what's presented in these movies, and b) there are groups working in direct opposition to said "dehumanizing" forces; humanity does not act in concert.

 

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