This is an interesting position for me to be in. It seems that last week’s review of Avatar had some people wondering what movie I’d actually seen, since I didn’t instantly fall in love with Pandora, nor did I gas myself into oblivion to be reincarnated as a Na’vi.
…Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still, a few folks at the Escapist thought I was mistaken in drawing a comparison between James Cameron’s latest money machine and a little film from last year called District 9. They further didn’t seem to get why I considered District 9 a better film, since it too is a sci-fi action drama with a message and a unique alien race never before seen by humans. I was going to fire up District 9 on the Netflix Instant Queue because I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening than streaming a film this good directly into my eye sockets, but someone very astute pointed out I’d already reviewed District 9 and while I haven’t given it the ICFN treatment, I’d just be repeating myself for the most part.
But you know what we haven’t had in a while? A cage match.
So let’s toss these two into the mix together and see which emerges victorious. I will attempt to remain as objective as possible for the benefit of all you Avatar fans out there.
Avatar’s main protagonist is a guy named Jake Sully, a former Marine who ran afoul of an enemy bullet and is confined to a wheelchair. On the one hand, Jake is a pretty likable guy, down-to-earth and willing to accept that he doesn’t have all the answers while learning all he can from those around him. The “Clan Jarhead” line he delivers is hilarious, to boot. On the other, he’s somewhat straightforward in his manliness and chutzpah, especially when he’s in his avatar body. He’s a good hero character, better than a lot of so-called “heroes” we get in generic Hollywood sci-fi, but parts of him still feel flat and one-dimensional.
I hesitate to call Wikus van de Merwe, the protagonist of District 9, a hero. He’s not heroic. When we first meet him, he’s a bureaucrat in a middle management position, tasked by his boss to facilitate the movement of the eviction of aliens from the shanty town of the title to a newer facility where the company can have more control over the population. He’s excited about this because it’s a chance for him to prove himself to his bosses, one of whom is his father-in-law. He’s a selfish, somewhat cowardly pencil-pusher, seemingly oblivious to the plight of the aliens and concerned solely with quotas and procedure. So why do I think he’s a better protagonist than Jake? He’s human. He’s painfully human, a real cypher for our condition and the way in which most people would probably see this situation until he’s thrust neck-deep into it. The fact that he is unprepared, unwilling and at first seems unable to deal with the complications he encounters make him feel far more real, and the audience connects with him, which more than gunplay or one-liners is what you need for a successful hero.
Avatar 0, District 9 1
The Na’vi are gorgeous. Leaving aside the fact that they were designed to be as appealing as possible to the audience, their realization is a wonder to behold. They look, move and even emote like living things. Their smooth, unique aesthetic draw us into Pandora, and their human-like emotions help us connect with their plight when humanity comes to drive them away.
I’m avoiding calling the aliens in District 9 ‘prawns’. It’s a derogatory term used by humans, and while it’s convenient it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Anyway, they feel every bit as real as the Na’vi do. They certainly don’t have the appealing aesthetics of their Pandoran counterparts, but you can still feel their emotions and relate to their situation. Despite most of them acting as alien as they appear, a couple of them (Christopher Johnson and his little son, for the most part) not only have adopted human body language, but also reveal themselves to be smart, patient and surprisingly funny from time to time. The impressive part is, they’re this well realized with director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson spending a tenth of the money that James Cameron poured into Avatar. However, I’m judging the extraterrestrials on how effectively they’re portrayed, and I have to say they’re just as successful as the Na’vi on that score.
Avatar 1, District 9 2
Pandora has a lot of novelty to it. It’s something we’ve never seen before, and it’s brought to life in a very impressive way. The plant life, the animals, even the inexplicably floating mountains have substance to them. It not only feels new and interesting, it feels real. It’s one of the best parts of Avatar, and since it’s the backdrop and motivation for everything that takes place in the film, it’s good they got it right.
District 9 is, well, a bit of a shithole. We don’t see much of Johannesburg outside of the District, other than some corporate and laboratory interiors. As much as this lends weight and reality to the plight of our protagonists, be they human or alien, it also serves to remind us of the urban decay we live in at this moment. Instead of spiriting us away from reality, as science fiction is wont to do, it makes us see the underbelly of our world here and now, and while I can’t really argue that such a powerful and austere statement doesn’t belong in a sci-fi flick, it’s also not really saying or showing anything new.
Avatar 2, District 9 2
Integrating with his twin brother’s Na’vi avatar body is a blessing for Jake pretty much from the start. He gets his legs back, he experiences a whole new world that he has to work within so he can prove his worth, while the old world he knows is a place where he is seen and defined by his handicap. It’s freedom, for him, and he’s passionate about preserving it. We understand why he would be and it allows us to see Pandora through the eyes of someone who’s both an outsider and open to its wonders. It’s pretty effective in that regard.
As for Wikus… well, I’m trying not to spoil anything here, but what happens to Wikus is absolutely terrifying on many levels. His experiences raise questions about our perceptions of other people (something I’ll expand on in the last category) as well as the value placed on a human life. Special effects aside, Sharlto Copley’s performance is absolutely fantastic, conveying a real sense of horror and confusion as things happen to toss him bodily out of his element and into a world he’d had no knowledge of and rails against even as events consume his life. It’s an extremely grounded sequence of events, portrayed through the eyes of someone to whom we can immediately relate even if we didn’t like him at first, and is overall and by itself more effective than most of the plot points of Avatar.
Avatar 2, District 9 3
The End Result
From an overarching standpoint, it’s hard to argue with Avatar’s success. It’s proven what can be done with modern filmmaking technology, showing techniques that would have been impossible twenty or even ten years ago. But other than being a technological and financial success, what is this movie telling us? Everybody and their mom has by now harped on the retread plot and the rather unsubtle jab at American foreign policy at the dawn of the 21st century. Despite how my sentiment might have come across in my review, learning to respect other cultures and the environment we share with them isn’t a bad message. But it’s just hammered into us over and over and over again to the point that it waters down the fun factor of being on Pandora, seeing Jake prove himself or checking out Neytiri. Still, I have to give the film a bit of credit for making the attempt at being relevant instead of just a pure escapist fantasy.
By the same token, District 9‘s message against racism in general and the concept of apartheid in particular isn’t a bad one, nor does the film beat around the bush regarding that message. What the film doesn’t do is make you sit through gratuitously long scenes that do little but underscore and emphasize that message with mournful wailing music playing in the background. It’s also a message that often goes unnoticed by the mass media. You can find any number of talking heads and radio pundits discussing this or that foreign policy, but the only mention race relations had been getting lately, at least in America, is how we “should” treat illegal immigrants. Do you want to see how illegal immigrants would be treated in an idealize America? See District 9. Watch how the goons from MNU treat the aliens and their young. As they say over on TV Tropes, some anvils need to be dropped. Instead of detracting from the success of the story, it’s part of what makes it work, drives it home for the audience and causes its images, plot points and characters to linger in our memories long after the final image fades from the screen.
Avatar 2.5, District 9 4
So there you have it. A close fight, but District 9 emerges as our winner. Now, again, Avatar isn’t bad. Dropping my attempted objectivity, I enjoyed it and I’d probably watch it again. But I am pretty much frothing at the mouth to watch District 9 again, and am eager to have others watch it as well. It’s on Netflix’s instant queue, so really, what are you waiting for?