Why District 9 was better than Avatar by mattsteinglass
January 7, 2010, 5:03 am
Filed under: Movies

This is a pretty nice piece on Avatar by Annalee Newitz (“When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?”), but I think its moderate praise for “District 9” (as an exception to the general pattern of movies in which white guys assimilate as natives or aliens and then lead them in battle) is insufficient to the true excellence and out-of-boxness of that movie. Newitz notes correctly that one revolutionary difference is that in “District 9″ the guy who assimilates as an oppressed alien discovers that being a member of the oppressed and stigmatized group isn’t awesome and liberating; it’s horrible, since members of oppressed and stigmatized groups are constantly being, well, oppressed and stigmatized.

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And this was indeed one great thing about “District 9”. But what was really fantastic about “District 9” was its vicious, hard-eyed vision of the confrontation between dominant ethnicities and organizations and oppressed/managed populations at the control points of refugee camps and ghettoes. The alien “prawns” in the District 9 shantytown are repulsive, brutal, and savage. That’s what people in concentration camps are like. The police officers enforcing control over them mix formulaic adherence to rules designed to maintain a fiction of legality and autonomy with a nervous recourse to organized violence when their control is threatened. Those interactions look absolutely like the contact point between security forces, humanitarian aid workers and refugee populations at the gates of a particularly bad camp. I lived in Africa for two and half years; the shock of recognition I felt in the first sections of that movie was intense, and it never let up.

District 9 takes a huge risk in its opening 15 minutes: its stigmatized controlled population is repulsive; its controllers are paper-pushing hypocrites or violent psychos. Who are we going to sympathize with? By default, at first, we sympathize with the “Office”-style loser, but we’re conscious that we are sympathizing with deceitful scum.

The movie’s only moment of cowardice, I thought, was in making the aliens possessors of ultimately superior technologies, if only these can be activated somehow. That’s a recourse to the Deep Earth Magic theme in most native-revenge fantasies, and it’s a bit of a cop-out. But realistically it’s hard to envision an alternative way to invoke the plot in the first place, or to move it forward. For the most part I thought the movie did at least as good a job of getting across the realities of refugee/apartheid/genocide dynamics as did nominally realist movies like “Hotel Rwanda” — better, because it was less sentimental. It’s a fantastic piece of work, and by the end of it I felt turned inside out.

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Well of course they have superior technology, they flew accross the galaxy to get to earth right?

Comment by katman

One thing: the aliens’ “ultimately superior technologies” actually makes sense in that they need superior technology in order to come to Earth in the first place. After that, it just allows the plot to move forward. But I wouldn’t call it cowardice. Convenient, yes, but it makes sense in context.

Comment by freshacconci

I envisioned that the “Prawns” were sent to earth as a way for some other aliens to get rid of them. Like refugees. Pushed on because no one wanted them.

I guess we don’t really know because Christopher does not explain but is willing to leave and go back, plus he knows how to drive the ship so I could be wrong….

they did leave it open for a sequel but I have not heard if it is happening. The biggest flaw with District 9 I felt was the “documentary” style. It took away from the film. Obviously they would not have filmed his father in law approving his killing….

Comment by scohart

Coincidentally, I saw these movies back to back.

I agree, District 9 was the superior movie. Avatar is a popcorn movie, District 9 is an excellent sci-fi action movie with many layers of satire weaved throughout. That being said, it was extremely violent and gory and the “hero” was a weasley bureaucrat who only began to do the right thing after he was forced to see things from the aliens perspective once he began to change into one. It was easy to root for him once he became allied with the alien Christopher Johnson, but until that point he was as unappealing as anyone else in this movie. The aliens were revolting bug-like creatures, violent, unpredictable, stupid(with some exceptions) and difficult to like.

Compare that to Avatar where the aliens are noble blue skinned creatures who live harmoniously with the ecosystem of their planet. It’s easy to like and root for them. The hero is a disabled marine, dismissed as useless at first, but then respected and followed. He had his challenges but overcame them through grit, determination and hard work. It’s easy to relate and root for him.

Avatar’s message was simple and direct. Respect nature. Respect alien(foreign) cultures. Industry, progress and profit are not all important. Avatar was “Dances with Wolves” set on another planet.

District 9 does not lend itself to such simple summation. It’s messages were more complex and troubling. Aliens and alien cultures are just that, alien. We cannot understand them using human terms because they are not human. People and companies act in their own self interest even to the point of committing evil acts. Companies are only focused on their success to the detriment of everything else. We as humans want to do the right thing, but when it gets tough or doesn’t go the way we wish, we withdraw our assistance and just want the problem to go away.

District 9 was one of the best movies of the year. It was complicated, unpredictable, frightening, horrifying, exciting, moving and challenging. I saw it a week ago and still am reflecting on how good it was and how much it challenged and moved me.

Avatar was an intriguing piece of entertainment, fun to watch but predictable. I found it overly long and it was easy to see where it was going after about an hour.

Comment by masodark

I believe the “cowardice” point is along the lines of something Kurt Vonnegut once complained about in the Christ story: all it says to the Romans is “don’t mess with the powerful Son Of God Himself”. Vonnegut thought the story would have been more ‘Christian’ in its sympathy for the poor and powerless if the skies had opened at the Crucifixion, and God had spake to the crowd: “This guy is just a dirty bum with delusions of grandeur. But you shouldn’t treat people this way, so I am ADOPTING this bum as My Son” … and taken the crazy bum up to Heaven to live in glory.

The ‘cowardice’ is that movies that give a hidden side of vast power or whatever to oppressed groups (remember Star Trek 4, where saving the whales was essential to saving the world from awesome alien power?) is that they make no moral case for good behaviour; you should behave as if the under-group were equals strictly out of self-interest.

That weakens the movie’s message to the real world where, alas, nobody will avenge the whales if we exterminate them, nor the Earth equivalent of Na’avi, and we know damn well we can exterminate with impunity.

Comment by rbrander

God District 9 was an unbelievably stupid movie.

First Congrats on making an alien movie showing how being oppressed sucks by turning one of the oppressors into the oppressed. Like that’s never happened except the Twilight Zone Movie did it first and better.

Secondly the Aliens had futuristic super weapons that allowed just 2 of them to take down a drug lord and group Blackwater-esque mercenaries. I mean if they all actually used the weapon they could have taken what they wanted and left with no harm coming towards them.

Are the people who like this film unable to see that glaring flaw from the beginning of the movie, or are they just so in love with Peter Jackson that the idea he would be involved in creating a movie with a massive plot hole unthinkable to them?

Comment by robmay

That was not a plot hole. Christopher Johnson, the main alien protagonist motivations were to go home. He was not interested in attacking or killing humans. He only wanted to gain the cylinder containing the fluid needed to power his ship home. He only attacked the MNU headquarters when it was explained to him by Wikus where the cylinder was and this was the only way to retrieve the cylinder.
The other alien’s motivations were obscured. Why did they come here? What do they want? Why do they behave the way they do? These questions were not answered because it was clear that humans characters in the movie did not care to know. You are certainly entitled to your opinion about the movie but putting down others who enjoyed it isn’t necessary. I hate plenty of movies but don’t see the point of putting down those who enjoyed it. You didn’t get this movie. It didn’t appeal to you. ’nuff said.

Comment by masodark

I wasnt craz about it dude, notat all!


Comment by Bobbe Lee

D9 was not better. Turned it off about half way though, failed to see the point of the movie.

Comment by bobjr94

TOO LONG HAS A MOVIE BEEN SHOT IN AMERICA, South Africa came up props to give the world a great movie, we should look at “9” as a great step-not assimilating it to Avatar genius.

Comment by cliveshome

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Your stuff is always interesting. I have various issues with your analysis but specifically I can’t find any description of “Deep Earth Magic theme in most native-revenge fantasies” on the web. So this is your name for something that’s well known? Could you give us a link to a description?

I can somewhat fill in the blank space here myself, but it really sounds like you are talking about some “known” theme so I’d rather not.

Comment by jedharris

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