Post-Colonial Science Fiction: Avatar and District 9

Awhile back my dad took me to see the film Avatar. I found the movie largely disappointing and completely unworthy of the hype that surrounds it. Most of the fun I had regarding that movie, was taking it apart and seeing how I can put it together. Later, I saw another film that I feel is similar in regards to theme, District 9. Both of these movies dealt with what are essentially colonial themes, but in my opinion District 9 is a far superior movie. This is because District 9 meets what I believe to be the criteria of a good science fiction movie, which is that it explores complex ideas about humanity.

First off, I’m going to talk about Avatar. I was very angry at James Cameron for making Avatar. I don’t really know what I was expecting, because I hated Titanic and the kind of movie I would have liked Avatar to be seen as is downright impossible to be made on the scale that Avatar was done at. The entire thing was one long Dances with Wolves rip off recycled in Space and done with characters who are so cardboard a light breeze could through them over. What disappointed me even more was that Avatar could have been a much better movie. A friend sent me an internet article about an early version of Avatar called Project 880, which had more developed characters and dealt with many philosophical issues in the movie that I thought were underdeveloped or completely missed in the film.

However, if the Gods of Science Fiction were to call on me, they’re humble servant, to go back in time and right the blasphemy against them that is Avatar, this is what I would change.

  • Loose Mighty Whitey, you know this story. White guy goes to random group of native people where he proceeds to out native them in every conceivable way. While in modern times this could have something to do with liberal guilt, it is still kind of racist. Not only that, it has been done. I have heard Avatar described as Dances with Wolves in Space and Pocahontas in Space, but unfortunately Avatar cannot be called Avatar in Space. I’m not saying that we don’t get ride of the whole aspect of Sully joining the Na’vi for awhile, I’m just saying we don’t make him their Messiah.
  • Loose the Noble Savages, this is essentially what the Na’vi are. They spend most of their time in harmony with nature when they’re not riding around on flying lizards and whatever the hell it is Na’vi are supposed to do. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a Noble Savage, the fact that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with them is the entire point of being a Noble Savage. My problem is that it is just to easy. I’ll probably go into this later in another point I’m going to make, but basically I think we should cut the blue cat people some cultural slack and make them more then just stand ins for our romantic notions about Native Americans.
  • Loose all that Action Movie Shit, I don’t go to movies because I want to see explosions, and as cool a world as Pandora is, I can’t really get into it if I don’t care about the people who live in it. I would basically turn it from an Action Movie into a Psychological and Philosophical Drama.
  • Character Development, get some, The characters in Avatar are very poorly developed and for the most part act as archetypes. Basically, what I’m saying is give them more depth. Especially that psycho Marine guy who’s basic purpose is to be the Military-Industrial Complex on Steroids and Crack. I personally love seeing American soldiers act like total monsters in movies, it’s kind of cathartic, but these days I’m liking it less and less.
  • Ramp up the Philosophical Issues, To me science fiction has always been a genre of ideas, which is something Hollywood seems to translate as “Things blowing up IN SPACE!” There are two issues that I felt Cameron could have concentrated on, issues of identity and the fact everyone is standing on a living freaking God.
  • Questions Regarding Human (and alien) Identity, The first problem is simple and in my opinion should have been a much larger focus for the movie. Jake Sully is sent to planet were he is given handy new alien body. Handy new alien body can do all kinds of things Sully can’t do, such as breath the toxic alien atmosphere and walk. Sully ends up being picked up by the local alien tribe and gets to learn they’re ways. Now we get to my question: Is Na’vi Sully the same person as Human Sully? When Sully becomes one with his Avatar, is he still Sully, is he still human? This could be highlighted in certain rituals of the Na’vi that we could add to this version. Say instead of burying their dead the Na’vi take the body of that dead person and eat it in a ritual similar to that of the Australian Aborigines. This handily gives Sully ethical issues and messes with various ethical issues, and any preconceived Noble Savage ideas we may have about the Na’vi
  • And Finally, God/Eywa. Not once are any theological or spiritual issues raised that the stupid humans are dealing with is a being that could be the closest thing to a God they have ever encountered without being certifiably insane. Now this is just me speaking, but this should have been a much more bigger thing to catch my attention for this movie. What if the entire point of going to Pandora is really that they have found God? Alright, maybe they come for the Unobtanium, but they stay to figure out this God thing.

So basically, for my rewrite of this movie, we leave out most of the action sequences, the basic starting plot, subvert every Colonialist cliche in the book, and end it all with a huge mindscrew instead of an action sequence.

Anyways, on to District 9. This is in effect the exact opposite of Avatar. They both feature a story about a human who becomes an alien, discovers new things about his world and feature colonial themes, but District 9 is probably a much more accurate idea of how things would turn out in the end. Basically, a bunch of alien insects called the Prawns land their space ship a bit above South Africa and overtime are moved into a slum. They are being taken cared of by a weapons corporation that is trying to figure out how to work they’re weapons, which appear to only work for them. The Prawns are also victims to Nigerian gangsters who eat their flesh so they can have the energy weapons and what appears to be a crippling drug problem related to cat food.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe, a young ambitious bureaucrat for evil weapons company who is sent to get all the prawns into a new slum outside the city. He starts of as a fairly unsympathetic character who bribes the prawns with catfood and “aborts” prawn eggs with a flame thrower. No sooner does this happen then he is infected with weird alien fluid and begins to slowly transform into a prawn himself. This disturbs Wickus very much, as he is soon on the run because his former co-workers want to cut him open for the money.

So why is District 9 better then Avatar? Well, for me it’s because I care about the actors and it doesn’t feel as phony. Avatar just seemed like a cheat, were as the guy who made District 9 seems to have done something that I believe has serious artistic merit. Plus, District 9 just has characters I can actual feel for, like Wickus. He starts out as basically a jerk, but when he comes out he seems to be a more developed human being (or prawn). The movie also had a better handle on it’s themes, such as the whole issue of oppression of minorities. Also, if District 9 is a film version in space of Kafka, it does this in a way that isn’t as obvious as Avatar’s rip off.

Anyways, I’ve been working on this blog post for to long, I will publish it and let you, dear reader, decide if I’ve got a point, am just ranting, or both. Excelsior.

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4 Comments

  1. trogette said,

    February 17, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Nodding along with pretty much all of this, yep

  2. February 18, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you trogette

  3. Thomas said,

    April 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I agreed with all of your points re: Avatar. I enjoyed the film from a technical perspective as I thought the 3D was done well, but plot-wise it was a waste of time. I do enjoy the whole premise of having an avatar, but that was done in Surrogates, as well, and I think that The Matrix really covered what a human-computer-interface would most likely become.

    I disagreed with all of what you said re: District 9. It was a pain for me to get through that movie. There were too many holes in what was going on and a high degree of missing vital information. Why were the prawns not using their own weapons when they were being marginalized? At the end with the fight-scene with Wikus in the machine, his technique was so fail when he could have easily overpowered the people chasing him. I also do not need to be told about corporate injustice, reality has enough of that.

  4. Regan Rodrigo said,

    September 26, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Totally agree with your comments, i have watched ‘District 9’ movie today only (26 Sep 2010). Really an wonderful science fiction but at the same time which can be possible at all the time. Perfect portray of the current world business concept on ‘weapons’ & bio weapons – The sick thoughts are by these big companies/nations are “Promote war/disease all over the world so our company/nation will be in ‘Profit’…” sick mentality


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