Why District 9 was better than Avatar
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.
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.