21 March 2011
Last year I blogged about two science fiction films that had been nominated for Oscars: Oscar battle: District 9 versus Avatar |Khanya, though in the end neither of them won and the winner was a film that had a meaningless (to me) title The hurt locker.
I had seen District 9 when it was first released, and blogged about it here, but had not seen Avatar until it was shown on TV a couple of nights ago, so now, for the first time, I'm in a position to compare them, though I should probably watch District 9 again, as it's 18 months since I saw it.
I hadn't realised that Avatar was satire until I saw it. Most of the descriptions I'd read suggested it was a kind of parable of colonialism, and that while it was science fiction, and so broadly in the same genre as District 9 I didn't realise how directly comparable they were.
I enjoyed Avatar, but I think District 9 was better.
In District 9 the satire works at multiple levels, not least because it satirises the genre itself. In one scene, where the protagonist Wikus van der Merwe is driving a robocop-type machine, it could even be satirising Avatar. In District 9 there are no good guys, there are wheels within wheels and plots within plots and the satire is liberally splashed on everyone.
Spoiler altert - if you haven't seen Avatar, what follows gives away the plot
Avatar, by contrast, is much more simple. It is like an old-fashioned Western, where the white hats fight the black hats, and the white hats always win.
The plot can be summarised in one sentence: Redskins fight Palefaces; Redskins win and send Palefaces home.
Only in this case the redskins are blue, and "home" is another planet.
In District 9 the aliens are stranded on earth, in an anything but beautiful environment. In Avatar the earthlings themselves are the aliens, out to rape the planet of its mineral wealth and exterminate any natives that get in their way. The natives, Na'vi, live in a beautiful environment that the alien earthlings destroy, and it is an environment that earthlings cannot even live in. They can only enter it by creating remotely controlled avatars, using alien DNA - another parallel with District 9, where Wikus van der Merwe becomes contaminated with alien DNA, which makes him a desirable property to corporate and Nigerian gangsters.
On another level Avatar has parallels with C.S. Lewis's novel Out of the silent planet, which has the same theme of science and high finance in an uneasy partnership to exploit another planet, Malacandra (Mars). In Lewis's book the natives have a similar relationship to a planetary deity, the Oyarsa, as the Na'vi in Avatar have with their deity Eywa. But Out of the silent planet doesn't end with the same shoot-'em-up scenes as Avatar.
Avatar is entertaining and has a moral message, and no doubt deserved the Oscar it got for special effects, but it falls a long way short of District 9