Did District 9 Steal Avatar’s Thunder?

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For sci-fi nerds (like me!) 2009 was promised as the year. It’s when James Cameron would finally resurface from the deep, bringing with him a new narrative feature. Not just a feature; Avatar intends to be a window into another culture, and another world. It will create a new alien race that is believably realistic, and show how one human hero faces difficult decisions as he navigates the conflict between humans and aliens.

And for sci-fi nerds, 2009 is the year. First, Duncan Jones brought the lovely, unsettling Moon to theatres. Then, along comes District 9. With a fraction of Avatar‘s budget, Neill Blomkamp manages to accomplish much of what Cameron’s film aims for. Based on what I’ve seen of Avatar so far (the 24-odd minutes shown at Comic Con and the teaser trailer) I’m led to wonder if District 9 might not do it better. Did District 9 steal Avatar‘s thunder?

First, the disclaimers:

1) From a creative perspective, these films are not competing with each other.
2) I’m talking about storytelling and universe building, not box office.
3) I haven’t seen all of Avatar, only the footage shown at Comic Con and the teaser. I have no conclusions about the movie, only informed speculation.
4) Spoilers ahead.

Despite distinct and obvious differences, the two films are quite alike. They present deep looks at new alien races. They posit that, despite the ability to communicate intelligently, humans and those aliens cannot co-exist. The main character, a human, is aligned with his own species at the outset, but is introduced to the alien perspective in physical and emotional ways. Finally, the character’s humanity is at stake as he moves into the future.

The Obvious

We’ve been told that Avatar could not exist without the technology to render emotional expression on faces of the Na’vi. The story wouldn’t work without that tech, because we wouldn’t believe it. And no, I don’t quite believe that Avatar is actually about a race of giant elves, or D&D cosplayers, or shaved Thundercats. Undeniable craft went into animating the Na’vi, who do look spectacular in motion, but nothing I’ve seen so far earns my interest, much less my sympathy. The design doesn’t bridge the Uncanny Valley; it lives deep within it. The photo-real CGI isn’t there, and to make the Na’vi fit into the world with real humans, everything appears to have been given an animated gloss. That may not be more than a brief barrier to entry in the final feature, but when I see the Na’vi free of context I giggle a little bit.

Meanwhile, with technology that looks like almost anyone could have made it, District 9 presents an alien race that is uncomfortably identifiable. Crude and quite inhuman, the prawns earn my emotional response not with their ability to make familiar expressions, but through simple behavior and interaction. Their society may be ramshackle and odd (and, if this were a review, I’d say half-formed in a way that is one of the film’s chief weaknesses) but I recognize a plight when I see it. That’s all it takes. Storytelling moxie, not banks of servers.

The Angle

There is also a crucial storytelling difference between the films. In Avatar, we will be brought into the world of the Na’vi, the giant blue race that inhabits Pandora. Through Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) travels in his alien body, we’ll see that the Na’vi are in tune with their world. Jake falls in love with an alien, so his perspective, one can guess, is eventually quite friendly towards the aliens. The broad human force is rapacious and uncaring; Jake stands relatively alone in his care for the aliens.

District 9 also brings the ‘hero’ into the alien world, but the word ‘hero’ has to be used with great care. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the bureaucrat protagonist, is not a sympathetic action hero in any traditional sense. He is selfish, not an easy guy to like. He isn’t significantly different from other humans in outlook or behavior. Through his actions, we see the plight and abuses of the aliens and (I hope) can’t help but believe that they should fare better.

The Grit

Wikus’ deep character flaws are the very things that make him human, believable and interesting. He may be normal, but he’s magnetic, if only because you can’t believe some of the things he does. He doesn’t make ‘smart’ moves. He reacts to the loss of his humanity not with wonder and glee, but with utter horror and revulsion. He doesn’t consciously push the action forward. In short, Wikus doesn’t feel like the product of an action movie screenwriter.

I’m concerned about Avatar‘s ability to challenge me in a similar manner. Based on what I’ve seen, the Dances with Wolves in Space angle could be all-too applicable. Furthermore, I know that Jake is impulsive, but I’m worried that he is not realistically so. The Comic Con footage showed Jake waking into his avatar body and promptly messing up the lab as he ignored technicians and moved around in his new shell. Outside of the context of the film, the scene felt false and forced; perhaps it will work when wrapped in the story. Later, we may be shown a massive battle between alien and human that rivals other spectacles in terms of sheer scale, but as he fights will Jake Sully command the screen with the power of Wikus Van De Merwe?

The Grime

And shockingly, while Avatar‘s aliens are brought to life by a host of very capable actors and what must be a small army of CG artists, the prawns were voiced (and often acted) by one guy. The eviction sequence, one of the most varied alien-intensive sequences, was created for District 9 as a few actors, primarily Sharlto Copley and the prawn actor Jason Cope, improvised various eviction scenarios in a slum.

As a result of that seat of the pants filmmaking, District 9 feels dangerous and alive. Avatar may well have the same feeling, and from what I’ve heard as James Cameron and his producer Jon Landau spoke, that’s very much the idea. But the footage I’ve seen doesn’t get that across. It’s too composed, too animated. Compare Avatar to Aliens and the new film pales when it comes to the danger and viciousness of the creatures.

The Pitch

Avatar has been sold as an experience, a tactic that very few films can ever live up to. Sony went the opposite route, and District 9 had the advantage of being marketed under the radar. The film feels like a discovery. It belongs to the audience, because it wasn’t shoved down their throat beforehand. When there are no expectations going in, there are none to be dashed afterward.

Neill Blomkamp’s movie is certainly the product of many influences: Bad Taste, The Fly, Starship Troopers, real African slums, conflict and apartheid. But I wouldn’t call it The Fly in South Africa, because the characterization of Wikus and the situations that develop push it fully into original territory. So far, with Avatar, it is very temptig to discuss it in reductive terms. (Again, Dances with Wolves in Space.)

So: you’ve seen District 9. (I hope.) You’ve seen the photos and trailer for Avatar. Which one satisfies your urge to explore the interaction between humans and aliens? Are the films so different that there is no reason to compare them? Or could James Cameron soon be schooled by a little film that came out of nowhere? (OK, a little film that was mentored by one of the world’s most powerful filmmakers, to be fair.)

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