Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

Avatar and District 9 – alike, yet very different

By - Jan 23rd, 2010 07:30 am
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There is something intrinsic in science fiction/science fantasy literature that always seems to lead to the idea of a human transformation into an alien and an alien into a human. Countless films have the alien taking the form of a human in order to more freely pass among us. The one that comes to mind first is Starman with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, the creature is gestated inside the human and literally erupts from John Hurt’s character’s heart. There is a similiar theme running in TriStar Pictures’ 2009  District 9, which was recently released on DVD, and 20th Century Fox’s Avatar.

From TriStar Pictures' District 9

From TriStar Pictures’ District 9

In District 9, a human being is unwillingly taken over by an alien life form. He inhales the mist from a valuable liquid fuel, and his body begins to change slowly into that of an alien creature. He vomits profusely despite a huge appetite. He loses fingernails and teeth, and his hand grows into a claw. His bones protrude, and his skin scales.  He has superior strength and phenomenal stamina.  The company he works for wants to dissect him for a scientific study. In short, he undergoes a very painful and humiliating experience, spending the second half of the movie trying to reverse the process.

In contrast, the human in Avatar willingly lies on the ground next to his “avatar” body under the “tree of souls.” He is surrounded by others who are kneeling and singing as the earth’s tendrils reach out to join him and his “avatar” as one. It’s very pretty. It’s the happy ending every child, heck every adult, wants. It’s a unity, a coming together transformation that’s wished for.

From 20th Century Fox's Avatar

From 20th Century Fox’s Avatar

In Avatar, the human longs to exchange his membership in a corrupt race on a ruined planet for the innocence of the pure Aboriginal tribe of a pristine planet. While James Cameron spanks the white European for what he has done to Aborigines all over the planet (specifically the near-genocide of Native Americans), Cameron perpetuates the myth of the gentle, kind, peace-loving innocence of these people. This is a celebrated lie used to stoke feelings of deep guilt for having gutted an entire civilization — cynically viewed as savage.

This Disney-fying of time, space and history is what most annoys me about Avatar. The beautiful images and the advances in technology, I hear, will revolutionize how movies are made and will make actors more integral to the film, so long as they can act with electrodes taped all over their bodies. Yet, the movie disappoints because it is so obviously designed to be a Hollywood blockbuster. It is beyond entertainment. It openly attempts to emulate the Star Wars phenomenon — specifically, of making more money than any movie has ever made before. It appears to be successful in this aspect of its endeavor.

In South Africa, District 9 was a short film called Alive In Joburg. It was directed by Neill Blomkamp. Producer Peter Jackson supplied Blomkamp with $30 million to transform his short into a feature film. The humans in a struggling country are visited by totally passive aliens. The aliens are a burden economically, and they’re a social strain because it is difficult to be hospitable to creatures that are not understood, obviously different and poor. The principal human plays the oppressor, albeit a nervous, high-strung, nerdy and weak one.  He has been chosen by his government to displace the aliens from their shantytown to another that is less visible.

Poster from District 9

Poster from District 9

District 9 is shot as though it’s a documentary, complete with interviews using a hand-held camera, video clips and television news footage. The ever-present camera gives the film a self consciousness, much like NBC’s The Office; and it becomes a very real situation. Only when the principal human has become infected and begins to transform does he begin to recognize the humanity of the aliens. This allows the alien creature to reveal himself to the human, and a bond of trust begins to grow between them. But the film never sentimentalizes any of the relationships or the emotions. The man, who is so totally human in his weakness and pettiness, as well as in the strength of his love for his wife, screams in pain to return to his human state. In Avatar, the human detests being human and purrs with joy at the opportunity to become the alien.

District 9 is gritty and real and makes you uncomfortable as it celebrates life and the humanness of it all. Avatar, meanwhile, is beautiful and graceful, and sentimentalizes every emotion that it approaches, and somehow appears to treat the human condition with disdain as it begs the audience to escape to a fantasy world. Yet, District 9 is overlooked and Avatar is wildly successful.

What kind of times are we living in?

AVATAR vs. DISTRICT 9
There is something in the science fiction/science fantasy literature that is attracted to the idea of the human transformation into the alien and the alien into the human.  Countless films have the alien taking the form of a human in order to more freely pass amongst us.  The one that comes to mind first is Starman with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.  In Ridley Scott’s Alien,the creature is gestated inside the human and literally erupts from where John Hurt’s heart is.  It is this theme that both films, District 9 and Avatar, both share.
In District 9 a human being is unwillingly taken over by an alien life form.  He inhales the mist from a valuable liquid fuel, and his body begins to change slowly into that of an alien creature.  He vomits profusely despite a huge appetite.  He loses fingernails and teeth, and his hand grows into a claw.  His bones begin to protrude his skin as scales.  He has superior strength and phenomenal stamina.  The company he works for wants to dissect him for a scientific study.  In short, he undergoes a very painful and humiliating experience, spending the second half of the movie trying to reverse the process.
In contrast, the human in  Avatar willingly lies on the ground next to his ‘avatar’ body under the “tree of souls,” surrounded by others kneeling in song, as the tendrils of the earth reach out and wrap around him to join him and his ‘avatar’ as one.  It’s very pretty, the happy ending every child, heck every adult, wants. It’s a unity, a coming together, a transformation devotedly wished for.
In Avatar, the human longs to exchange his membership to a corrupt race and a ruined planet for the innocence of the pure aboriginal tribe of a pristine planet.  While Cameron spanks the white European for what he has done to aborigines all over the planet, specifically the near genocide of Native Americans, Cameron perpetuates the myth of the gentle, kind, peace loving innocence of these people.  This is a celebrated lie used to stoke a deeply felt guilt for having gutted an entire civilization cynically viewed as savage.
This Disneyfying of time, space and history is what most annoys me about Avatar.  The beautiful images and the advances in technology I hear will revolutionize how movies are made and will make actors more integral to the film so long as they can act with electrodes taped all over their bodies. Yet the movie disappoints because it is so obviously designed to be a “Hollywood Blockbuster.”  It is beyond entertainment.  It openly attempts to emulate the Star Wars phenomenon, specifically, of making more money than any movie has ever made before.  It appears to be successful in this aspect of its endeavor.
District 9, though, was a short film called Alive In Joburg directed by Neill Blomkamp in South Africa.   Peter Jackson supplied Blomkamp with $30 million to transform his short into a feature.   The humans in a struggling country are visited by totally passive aliens.  The aliens are a burden economically, and a social strain because it is difficult to be hospitable to creatures that are not understood, obviously different, and poor.  The principal human plays the oppressor, albeit a nervous, high-strung, nerdy, and weak one.  He has been chosen by his government to displace the aliens from their shantytown to another that is less visible.
The film is shot as though a documentary, complete with interviews using a hand held camera, video clips and television news footage.  The ever-present camera gives a self consciousness much like The Office and the film becomes a very real situation.  Only when the principal human has become infected and begins to transform does he begin to recognize the humanity in the aliens, which allows the alien to reveal himself to the human and a bond of trust begins to grow.  But the film never sentimentalizes any of the relationships or the emotions.  The man, who is so totally human in his weakness and his pettiness, as well as in the strength of his love for his wife, screams in pain to return to his human state.  In Avatar the human detests being human and purrs with joy at the opportunity to become the alien.
District 9, which is gritty and real and makes you uncomfortable, celebrates life and the humanness of it all, while Avatar, which is beautiful and graceful, and sentimentalizes every emotion that it approaches, and somehow appears to treat the human condition with disdain and begs to escape to fantasy and takes the audience with it.  Yet District 9 is overlooked and Avatar is wildly ‘successful.’  What kind of times are we living in?
Categories: Movies

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