Friday, February 26, 2010

District 9 & Avatar

The best science fiction turns a funhouse mirror back on the viewer, distorting and augmenting reality and revealing truths.  Aliens, robots, and outer-space settings become metaphors for our life, society, and humanity and, by showing us what we're not, show us who we are.

The metaphors are all too bitter in District 9, when an alien spacecraft docks over Johannesburg, South Africa.  The lobster-like refugees are taken in, but little effort is made to understand their language, culture, and needs.  Instead, the government is more concerned with appropriating alien weapon technology.  Corralled into a filthy ghetto in squalid conditions, these aliens lash out with violence and the humans wonder why.  Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a government bureaucrat tasked with evicting the "prawns" to a new and even worse slum.  During the search of a tenement shack, he encounters an alien substance that starts to transform him into one of the creatures that he so despises and, forming an uneasy partnership with one of the aliens, he works to return back to normal.  As Wikus's transformation and his time with the aliens progresses, he gains an understanding and empathy for their plight.

Anyone who knows anything about South Africa knows what this film is really about. 

Avatar has pretty much the same plot.  On the distant planet of Pandora, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully finds new life when, through the miracle of technology, he is able to "become" the member of a local alien race known as the Na'Vi.  While Jake makes contact with the natives and learns their ways, his corporate and military bosses are more concerned with mining opportunities under the Na'Vi settlement.  Unlike Wikus, Jake prefers his lithe alien body and, after gaining a mystical understanding of the Na'Vi ways (and a romantic understanding of his tutor) he finds himself in a war against the humans.

So in Avatar, the U.S. Military brings an unprovoked attack on a nation (of aliens) in order to gain lucrative drilling rights.  Hmmm... what could they be saying here?  Conversely, roles are turned on their heads when the destruction of a large tower-like structure serves as a call-to-arms for the Na'Vi. On top of that, we discover (with Jake) that all life on Pandora is literally connected in a web of consciousness and that destroying any part of the planet is bad for all living things.  Director James Cameron has never been big on subtlety.  The screenplay may be as artful as a cudgel to the head, but at least Cameron recognizes that science fiction can provide an entertaining platform for his allegorical ideas.

No comments: