18 June 2013

District 9 vs. the stagnation of SF cinema

When I posted Kaleb Lechowski's stunning short clip R'ha a week ago, I observed that this independent project looked like a fresh and novel break from the assembly-line barrage of "sequels and re-makes and tired, bloated, unimaginative blockbusters" that dominate science-fiction movies these days.  The situation is indeed dire.  How many more times can they keep rehashing Superman and Star Trek?  (Yes, Star Trek had some great SF episodes in its day, but by now it's surely time to stop milking a long-dead cow.)  How did we get from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Alien and Blade Runner to The Phantom Menace and After Earth?

At any rate, commenter "Bacopa" suggested I check out District 9, which I had heard of but not seen.  I did, searching for clips on YouTube, and was startled by what I saw.  District 9 is from South Africa, a country not usually associated with making science-fiction movies at all; and its production cost of about $30 million, while far from cheap, was spartan by the standards of big Hollywood productions.  But while it's a story of unwelcome aliens on Earth, it very much breaks with conventional movie portrayals of aliens -- and with conventional ideas of what science-fiction movies are supposed to look like.

Synopsis, as best I can gather:  A giant alien spaceship materializes in the sky over Johannesburg.  The creatures on board are not invaders but passengers, and their ship reached Earth (a planet unknown to their species) due to some kind of malfunction; they don't know how to fix it or get home, and are understandably frightened and bewildered.  The South African government, suddenly faced with this large population of useless and ugly creatures, sets aside an area of Johannesburg ("District 9") as a sort of ghetto for them -- they also hope to exploit the aliens' technology for military purposes, which would explain why they don't just unload the problem on some richer country.  Years pass and tensions rise between the aliens, disparagingly known as "prawns", and neighboring humans.  Eventually the authorities decide to relocate the "prawns" from District 9 to a new area outside the city, but the creatures resist eviction; also, a few have been making plans to return to their ship (still hovering over Johannesburg, since no one knows how to remove it) after acquiring the necessary knowledge and supplies to operate it, to contact their distant home planet and eventually bring their whole population back home.

A couple of scenes for flavor -- first, serving an eviction notice:

Here, a "prawn" father sadly explains to his small child that, though they are being forced out of District 9, they still can't go back to the home planet (the rest of this video is an assembly of fight scenes -- the film does have plenty of action):

Imagery of a despised and marginalized population being abused and degraded by the dominant race is emphasized -- such themes inevitably loom large in the South African consciousness -- but the humans in the film seem to have quite forgotten that the lowly "prawns" come from a civilization which must be more advanced than our own, since it can produce interstellar spaceships (even if their navigation stinks), and thus more powerful too.  In the end, one of them succeeds in flying the ship away, promising to return in three years with a fleet to bring his people home; one wonders if this fleet, when it arrives, might also punish humanity for its treatment of the refugees.

I'll be picking up the DVD soon.  District 9 was a strong commercial hit, appealing an audience older than that which goes to most SF films; I'm somewhat embarrassed that I missed it when it originally came out in 2009.  So it's possible to succeed by doing something original, but it seems Hollywood was too busy scouring comic-book remainder bins for obscure superheroes to notice.  South Africa gave us this.  Maybe the next big original SF hit will come from Brazil or Iran or.....?


Blogger Ahab said...

I too adored DISTRICT 9 because it was an intelligent sci-fi film with good characterization and social commentary.

Another film I've heard good things about is SUNSHINE. Have you seen it? I need to check it out sometime.

18 June, 2013 07:43  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I should have listened to my grandson who clued me in on this film.

He does have good taste in music--he keeps me current with what's happening in alternative rock and other music--and he certainly knows good Sci-Fi.

I've promised him I would finally see this one.

And, also, will look for "Sunshine."

Thanks for this.

18 June, 2013 08:19  
Anonymous Bacopa said...

The last scene in the second video with the alien making a rose out of scrap metal. I know who it is and why he's doing it. It will bring a tear to your eye. Also, District 9 is banned in Nigeria. Watch it to find out why.

I also have to recommend Sunshine. The John Murphy soundtrack alone would make it worth watching. Kind of an implausible premise, but I could suspend disbelief easily. But if the problem in the movie really was happening would the nations of Earth really be able to unite to build the Sunshine Ships? I think each one took 10-20% of Gross Planetary Product to build. The denialists would never let that happen.

19 June, 2013 13:25  
Anonymous AWJ said...

District 9 was excellent. Have you seen Moon? That was another thoughtful SF movie, made in the tradition of 1970s SF films like Silent Running and Solaris.

19 June, 2013 15:59  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Just got through watching the DVD. Absolutely stunning. This is a brilliant example of a film made by people who don't know what they're not supposed to do, and so produce something that succeeds in an utterly unique way. It's miles beyond the conventional Hollywood blockbuster. There's no comparison.

Shaw, I hope you'll see it -- it would resonate with you, I think. Don't be put off by the way the beginning seems to hover between being a documentary and a regular movie. When you get into it you'll see that it's being its own thing.

Haven't heard of Moon or Sunshine, though my DVD of District 9 included a trailer for the former. I'll look into them.

The last scene in the second video with the alien making a rose out of scrap metal. I know who it is and why he's doing it. It will bring a tear to your eye.

It did.

19 June, 2013 19:18  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

There was obviously some real conviction behind District 9, which was about a problem which has plagued South Africa for decades. With rare exceptions, Hollywood sci fi movies are nothing but commercial products designed to snare 13 or 15 year old boys.

Nothing wrong with making money- at least they aren't hurting anyone in the process, but you can't really expect much for adults to come out of the process.

19 June, 2013 19:20  
Anonymous Bacopa said...

If you don't choke up over the scrap metal rose, you're not human.

I think the D9 aliens had an insectoid caste system. Greens like Christopher and some of the yellows seem to be commanders or scientists. Golden browns seem to be workers, Reds seem to be fighters. I think the ship failed because they caught a disease or were attacked with a biological weapon which disrupted communication between the castes. They programmed their ship to take them to the nearest planet that could support them, and that was Earth.

But enough of my speculations. See "Sunshine". Tribute to 2001 in the middle and the ending is a huge tribute to Dr Strangelove. But that tribute only works if you understand that Maj. Kong was depicted as a highly competent USAF officer. Kong was exactly the kind of competent commander to play the game of nuclear deterrence.

19 June, 2013 19:34  
Anonymous AWJ said...

In my interpretation of the movie, the "alien caste system" theory is most likely pseudoscience that the humans in the South African government came up with to justify their mistreatment of the aliens--just as pseudoscientific theories about the supposed racial traits of Africans were used to justify slavery and colonialism in the 19th century, and Jim Crow and apartheid in the 20th.

On earth, biological caste systems are only found in certain insects where the vast majority of individuals are the sterile offspring of a single fertile female per colony. The queen of a colony of ants, bees or termites doesn't "rule" them in any anthropomorphic sense--she's just the only female in the colony with functioning ovaries.

The aliens in District 9 are not depicted as having castes in the reproductive sense. On the contrary, they are apparently hermaphrodites, with any individual alien being capable of producing eggs (it's not clear whether they need a mate or whether a single alien can self-fertilize)

Imagine that a jumbo jet with a full load of passengers fell into the hands of aliens who had no prior knowledge of human biology or society. Once the aliens managed to communicate with their Earthling captives, they would learn that only a small minority of the jet's occupants (the pilot and copilot, and possibly one or two passengers who happened to have an aerospace background) had any technical knowledge of the machine that they were travelling in, while the majority of the Earthlings were more or less ignorant of how "their own" technology worked.

Would these aliens conclude that Homo sapiens is a caste-based species in which the "pilot caste" rules over the much more numerous, less intelligent "passenger caste"? They might very well, if they were aliens with the same predispositions as South Africa's pre-1990 rulers.

19 June, 2013 23:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Or perhaps there's no biological caste system, but in the history of the alien planet, the green subgroup had acquired the same kind of material and educational advantages that light-skinned humans have on Earth, for reasons unrelated to biology?

Any of these things is certainly possible, and the movie doesn't really suggest answers to such questions -- though of course if this really happened the world scientific community would study and question the "prawns" and would probably reach a pretty good understanding of their biology and culture in 28 years.

We certainly couldn't expect alien biology to closely match anything familiar.

The "jumbo jet" analogy had occurred to me too. Humans in modern civilization are increasingly specialized, with each individual mastering only a small subset of the range of technical and other skills required to make civilization work. Perhaps in a more advanced civilization, individuals would be even more specialized.

At any rate, it's not really that kind of movie. It definitely reveals a more South African kind of focus, on the human capacity for casual brutality toward those deemed inferior (the egg-shed burning scene is chilling, all the more since Wikus is as charming and chipper as ever during it) -- and the "prawns" certainly don't give the impression that they'd be any better if the shoe were on the other foot.

It's no surprise that this one did draw an audience mostly older than the usual 13-15-year-old boys.

20 June, 2013 05:55  
Blogger Ahab said...

So many aspects of this film were tragic, and it's a chilling commentary about oppression. The "prawns" came from a technologically advanced spacefaring race, but in District 9, circumstances have reduced them to beggars, addicts, and refugees. And the humans are perfectly happy to keep them that way.

20 June, 2013 09:05  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The degeneration seems odd, but imagine a population of ordinary humans trapped on some frightening alien planet under similar circumstances, and it becomes more plausible.

20 June, 2013 18:49  

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