Reel Rumbles #20: “Avatar” vs. “District 9″

15 Sep

In This Corner…

2009 was a banner year for science fiction, one of the best for the genre in recent memory. It brought us franchise resurrections (J.J. AbramsStar Trek, McG‘s Terminator Salvation), critically-heralded indie gems (Duncan JonesMoon), and, indeed, Oscar cred with, not one, but two Best Picture nominations. Which brings us to, arguably, two of the best sci-fi movies of the past decade, and this edition of Reel Rumbles: James Cameron‘s Avatar vs. Neill Blomkamp‘s District 9.

It’s a true David vs. Goliath story: Avatar is both the most expensive movie in film history, and the highest-grossing. District 9 is the little indie that could, proportionately achieving financial success somewhat comparable to Avatar‘s with a much more meager budget. One was directed by one of the most successful directors in cinematic history (who already had the previous highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic [1997], under his belt), and one was helmed by a first-time feature film director whom producer Peter “The Lord of the Rings” Jackson had taken under his belt. And yet, for two films on such opposite ends of the financial and professional spectrum, they actually share a surprising number of similarities.

But which film is superior? Does box office domination translate to better filmmaking? Step into the ring and find out…

Round One: Story

Anybody who saw Dances With Wolves (1990) will tell you that Avatar does not feature the most original story. A soldier participating in the forced relocation of an indigenous people falls in love with a native and eventually sides with his former enemy against his own people. It’s right out of the legend of Pocahontas. What Avatar does have to distinguish it is some neat sci-fi trappings–fantastic creatures, a beautiful-yet-deadly alien world–and some astounding visuals. However, in terms of the story, one can’t help but have a “been-there-done-that” feeling.

If one looks closely enough, the story of District 9 actually share some startling similarities with Avatar‘s. There is a forced relocation of an alien population; the main character eventually undergoes a physical transformation to become just like his former enemy and side with them against the establishment; heck, both films even feature giant, heavily armored robotic suits.

What District 9 does so brilliantly, however, is take all these familiar elements and wrap them into a story that feels fresh and new. It takes an age-old science fiction concept–the alien invasion–and turns it on its head: Instead of appearing over a major city like New York to do some damage (as in, say, Independence Day [1996]), the alien ship comes to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa. Instead of coming in force to destroy us, the aliens are weak, sickly refugees. It’s a powerful combination that turns District 9 into something unique. The story shares a lot of similar themes with Avatar, but whereas the “bigger” film feels like a story that’s been done to death, D-9 seems fresh and new. As a result, District 9 takes this round, 10-8.

Round Two: Script

Both films have scripts that were written or co-written by their directors. In James Cameron‘s case, it’s his first script since Titanic, and it doesn’t show that his writing has improved in the intervening twelve years. Avatar is filled with neat sci-fi concepts and fantastic visuals, but dialogue has never been Cameron’s strong suit. He’s a lot like George Lucas, in some ways: a fantastic idea man, but not the best writer. (He is, however, a much better director; more on that later.) Still, in Avatar‘s case, Cameron seems to have borrowed his ideas from other sources. We’ve already mentioned Dances With Wolves, but here he’s even ripping himself off. The military team headed by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang)–and, indeed, much of the film’s structure (even those robotic AMP suits)–are ripped right out of Cameron’s previous sci-fi hit, Aliens (1986), now nearly a quarter-century old and still looking good. All this, and Avatar also packs a tree-hugging environmental message that is about as subtle as a thanator in a hen house: Nature good, technology bad. (Quite the statement to come from the most high-tech and expensive movie of all time.)

The dialogue in Avatar is mostly not memorable, except in awkward ways. “I see you” packs even less punch than lines like “I’m the king of the world!” and “I’ll never let go, Jack” from Titanic, and the actors trip over sci-fi terms like “unobtanium”. There isn’t a single plot twist that most moviegoers won’t see coming a mile away.

The script for District 9, meanwhile, packs a punch. It’s lean and efficient in its storytelling, and it carries a message that seems much more powerful than the one in Avatar, yet also more subtle. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has stated that his intention was never to make District 9 into an allegory, but just to tell a rollicking sci-fi adventure story. Whether intentional or not, D-9 succeeds on both fronts. It’s highly entertaining, but the parallels to apartheid in South Africa are obvious. Yet, the script doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it.

Some might point to a small flaw in the D-9 script: In the final third, the film seems to abandon its faux documentary style and turns into a more straightforward action tale. But such is the power of the film as a whole, I’d be willing to wager that the average viewer is so involved in the story that they wouldn’t even notice the shift.

Round two is a definitive win for District 9: 10-8.

Round Three: Performances

If we were simply to compare leading men, this round would be no contest: First-time actor Sharlto Copley–as Wikus Van Der Merwe, a good yet misguided man who finds himself transformed in more ways than one by the movie’s end–wipes the floor with Sam Worthington, another relative newcomer, who is perfectly adequate in Avatar, but was much better earlier in the year, with Terminator Salvation.

But what if we take a closer look at the extended casts? The players in Avatar, for the most part, actually do pretty good work with what meager material the script gives them. Sigourney Weaver, Cameron’s leading lady in Aliens, gets all the best lines as fiery Grace Augustine. Zoe Saldana (like Worthington, hitting it big in sci-fi in ’09, as she also appeared as Uhura in Star Trek) is Avatar’s heart and soul as the Na’vi Neytiri. Some of the other players, like Michelle Rodriguez and Giovanni Ribisi, aren’t given much to do by the script, but fill their roles more than adequately.

The standout, though, is Stephen Lang, as the perfectly despicable Colonel Quaritch. Early in the film, he delivers with conviction a speech about the dangers of Pandora, and then proves himself the most dangerous creature on the planet, becoming a perfectly despicable villain, ultra-menacing during the film’s climax.

The thing is, District 9 also has a fantastic villain, in David James as Koobus Venter. James oozes loathing for the film’s hero, Wikus, and the alien “prawns”, and supplies real menace in the film’s climactic finale. And it’s not just D-9‘s hero and villain; the entire South African cast, unknown to American audiences, are–from on-camera interviewees to colorful Nigerian arms dealers–fully convincing in their roles. Eugene Khumbanyiwa is terrifying as the arms dealer who believes consuming alien body parts will bestow upon him the prawns’ special powers, and Vanessa Haywood sells the heartache as Wikus’ tortured wife, Tania.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Sharlto Copley is just so damn good as Wikus Van Der Merwe. It’s a performance that could (should?) have garnered District 9 another Oscar nomination, and he nudges D-9 ahead of the competition again, 10-9.

(A special note should be made, I think, of the digital characters in both these films. The movies are blurring the lines now between acting and visual effects. The Na’vi look utterly real, demolishing the uncanny valley and Neytiri is one of the most convincing digital characters ever created–far more Gollum than Jar Jar Binks. But at the other end of the spectrum, the VFX team behind D-9 gets real emotions out of aliens that look like big crustaceans, imbuing Christopher Johnson with a genuine soul. And while neither character would really exist without actors Zoe Saldana and Jason Cope, it seems to me that the computers are beginning to have just as much of a hand in performance in these types of films as the actors.)

Round Four: Direction

Both of these films were passion projects for their directors. James Cameron has been an innovator who began changing cinema back in 1984 with The Terminator. He brought CGI to the forefront with The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). And it was while he was on his way to becoming the King of the World with the Oscar and box office smash success that was Titanic (1997) that he first began gestating the idea that would become Avatar. The film itself spent four years in production, as Cameron and his team created new technologies to shoot the movie in 3-D. And when Avatar struck mega gold, James Cameron changed the face of cinema again–for good or ill; that remains to be seen–as now a new glut of 3-D event films clog the cinema.

There were twelve years between Titanic and Avatar, but when Cameron returned, he showed that he still knows what the heck he’s doing behind the camera: Avatar‘s visuals are absolutely stunning, its action sequences top-notch. The film is a ride, pure and simple.

But as formidable an opponent as the veteran Cameron is, first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp comes out swinging, and gives the King of the World a run for his money. When the movie based on the video game Halo–which Blomkamp had been tapped to direct–fell through, producer Peter Jackson offered Blomkamp a budget to create whatever kind of film he wanted to. As a result, he looked back to his own short film, Alive in Joburg, to flesh it out into feature length. And thus, District 9 was born.

Working with far, far less money (D-9‘s budget was less than one-tenth of Avatar‘s), Blomkamp still makes his film look spectacular. His alien prawns live and breathe just as much as Cameron’s Na’vi (albeit in a vastly different way, of course) and he proves himself just as capable handling big action scenes as he does heart-rending phone conversations between Wikus and his terrified wife. The slums of District 9 are a vastly different canvas from the lush, colorful jungles of Pandora, but Neill Blomkamp paints it with a sure hand.

James Cameron may have the experience, but it’s easy to see the talent that Peter Jackson found in Neill Blomkamp. Both directors compensate ably for what some might see as problems in their scripts. Cameron may have had more to overcome there, but Blomkamp’s film, as a whole, has more teeth. Cameron has the experience, but Blomkamp has obvious raw talent. Round four is a draw: 10-10.

And the Winner Is…

Avatar is a ride worth taking, a feast for the eyes – but its plot is too predictable. The majority of its characters: too one-note. Talk to somebody who hasn’t seen the film a dozen times; they’ll likely recall a favorite action sequence or stunning image–a testament to Cameron the visionary and director–but not a single memorable line or twist of plot–which is telling about Cameron the writer.

District 9, meanwhile, is also a heck of a ride – but there’s more substance beneath the surface. Wikus Van Der Merwe becomes a real person whom the audience cares for, and though the film shares elements of plot with Avatar it feels more like something fresh and new – a film you haven’t seen before.

There’s nothing wrong with a film with a message. But Cameron wields Avatar‘s message like a blunt instrument. D-9‘s message is a scalpel, getting under your skin, perhaps because it wasn’t intended as a message movie in the first place. Thus, by UNANIMOUS DECISION, the winner of this bout is District 9.

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  • Nigel Druitt

    @RAPatton: I have to admit, with shame, that I have not yet seen Moon. Must rectify that…

  • G. Keenan

    Have to agree. Loved Avatar, but I’m more excited for what the tech will do in movies to come. District 9, though, was a film I adored.

    I know it may be apples to oranges, but I would like to see a Reel Rumble between District 9 and Moon, two of my favorite films from last year…