District 9

I accidentally attended one of the District 9 previews, introduced by producer Peter Jackson in the flesh, which was nice. It’s a good film – relatively low-budget for sci-fi*, but it doesn’t show, and miles better than any of the recent franchise instalments we’ve been bombarded with, expensive films whose primary purpose is to generate money. It’s also amusing to see Wellington actors pretending to be South African.

District 9 isn’t a space opera, although like every other modern film in the genre, the future is heavily militarised. Quick! Name a sci-fi film which doesn’t involve guns or soldiers!* It’s reasonably violent and there’s only a couple of women characters, but it’s rather more intelligent and thought provoking than it needed to be. There’s also a lot of gleeful head-bursting, which will warm the hearts of those who miss Jackson’s splatter films. And an amusing scene involving a dead pig used as ammunition. It sets up a sequel, but you’re given enough information to be able to imagine for yourself what happens next, which is a good and intelligent way to end a film.

*US$30 million, as compared to $200 million for Terminator 4 and Transformers 2.
**Going by the films (I’ve seen) from the rather broad list of sci-fi films in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die I’d say Bride of Frankenstein, A Clockwork Orange, Delicatessen, Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Sleepers, but you know what I mean.
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12 Responses to “District 9”

  1. Off the top of my head, those filmed in the last few decades or upcoming and without significant presence of guns, soldiers or cops (so no Blade Runner ) whose scripts weren’t marinated in testosterone, see also:

    12 Monkeys, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Altered States, The Andromeda Strain, Artificial Intelligence, Brave New World, City of Lost Children, Code 46, Contact, Dark City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fly, The Fountain, Je t’Aime Je t’Aime, Jurassic Park, La Jetee, Last Night, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Moon, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Omega Man, One Point 0 , Possible Worlds, The Prestige, Repo Man, Sans Soleil, Solaris, Stalker, Sunshine, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Unbreakable

    Strike Nineteen Eighty-Four if totalitarian states count as ‘the military’ .

    Oldies (Cronenberg’s The Fly is better by far than the original but otherwise here I’m ignoring remakes) :

    The First Men in the Moon, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (OK, an exception can be made here – the ’70s remake is actually good) The Invisible Man, Metropolis, The Time Machine (not a great film and a bad remake again) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not good, but it does have James Mason) Voyage to the Moon Various drive-in movies such as The Blob, The Creature From the Black Lagoon and so on…

    (Hmm, the books of a failed draper’s assistant seem to get adapted a lot)

    Not all are good ( I am Legend is a great book, its second film adaptation, The Omega Man is so-so and the thing with Will Smith in it is a travesty), and some, like La Jetee / 12 Monkeys will feature miltarism in the background (the aforementioned film and its derivative, crucially, feature one gun that is fired just once). The Andromeda Strain has a strong military presence, but isn’t really about them. I might throw in eXistenZ and Videodrome – even though they feature some shooting with some very peculiar guns, cops and soldiers are mostly absent.

    Not sure about, films like Brazil , say… does the Ministry of Information count as the military?

    But indeed, I know what you mean. To Hollywood, SF is meant to be big, dumb stories with lots of things blowing up reeeeaaalll good. Disaster Porn, in other words. A real pity, since La Jetee is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking films on the list and the director didn’t even use movie cameras.

    Now I’m just hoping that Michael Bay will be simultaneously struck by an asteroid, a tsunami, a Whizz-o-Matic Alien Death Ray, a giant robot and the Imperial Japanese Navy while being beaten at chess by the ghost of Stanley Kubrick.

  2. I discounted some of the films in your list (of the ones that I’ve seen) that were also mentioned in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die because of their singular gun, such as The Fly, 12 Monkeys, and The Man Who Fell To Earth’s fetishised gun, but you’re right about AI and 2001 (it’s likely the astronauts are military, but not necessarily so) and Alien is borderline because although Nostromo is a commercial ship, the crew have military ranks. Brazil, Jurassic Park and 1984 all have guns waved around.

    It would make an interesting study though, wouldn’t it?

  3. How does one “accidentally attend” such a preview?

  4. I was kidnapped from my flat by an Australian and when the bag was taken off my head I was in the Embassy.

  5. Rhinocrates Says:

    It would. I suspect that one of the reasons, though not the only, is that wars are inherently dramatic and easier to use to generate visually-intensive plots (a good Stanislaw Lem novel would simply be scientists presenting hypotheses and demolishing them – intellectually fascinating, but boring to most people – even Soderbergh’s stripped-down and upbeat version of Solaris flopped… great soundtrack, though). Another is that military or quasi-military situations allow exposition to sound natural (“There are our targets” / “These are your orders”) with clearly defined missions and a linear narrative generated thereby. A third is that military settings are recognisable, and thus not requiring exposition, whereas a film like Gattaca (forgot to mention that one) or Code 46 requires a complex society and premise to be laboriously explained and explored, losing much of the audience – and therefore the investors.

    BTW, the space agency in 2001 is a thinly-veiled NASA and definitely civilian. NASA did take on a lot of military personnel as astronauts, but it was because they were the people who were experienced test pilots.

    I won’t quibble over the ranks in Alien as even though they are analogous to military ranks, ranks on civil vessels to day are still of the structured, mission and task oriented variety, supportig your observation and the points I make above.

    One SF writer, Bob Shaw, I think, once said that plots in SF are simply machines for displaying the various facets of an idea at different angles. A military organisation and mission or a scientific or commercial organisation or venture that is structured in a similar manner serves as a plot machine also, and so could well be inherently suited to the peculiarities/requirements of SF.

  6. Interesting. I thought the personnel NASA sent into space were overwhelming military, but undoubtedly things will have changed by 2001’s 2001.

    By the way… Peter Jackson is a lot thinner now, but he’s definitely going to look like Stanley Kubrick when he’s older!

  7. thomsedavi Says:

    Intelligent and thought-provoking Science Fiction film… want to see.

    Peter Jackson reverting to splatter-film mentality… lose interest again.

    I think I’ll stick with Flight of the Conchords for all my warm patriotic feelings for now.

    “She works down at the cheap zoo.”
    “The pet store?”

    My favourite vision of the future is The Fifth Element. Not a generic dystopia or an even more generic utopia, the future will be filled with lots of colour, loud noises, mindless entertainment, obnoxious celebrities, narcissism, solipsism and the rise of Twitter. Oh wait! That’s the future we already live in. How amazingly prophetic.

  8. That’s what I liked about The Fifth Element . Aha!, I thought, in the future there will be trash culture, haute couture and high tech. I found that more realistic than all the narrowly focussed scenarios or facile assumptions of uniformity in so many other films. Plus la change and all that…

    I came across a discussion by various scientists on Battlestar Galactica somewhere and they agreed that the physics and biology were pretty iffy, but what they got right was the psychology. Faster-than-light propulsion and whatnot are definitely ruled out, but, yes, people who are sleep-deprived and under stress do act that way… Stereotypically, SF has been about ‘hard’ sciences – physics, chemistry (try Hal Clement), but since the New Wave in the 60s (when science fiction discovered sex again – Wells had known about it and practiced it all along of course), the ‘soft’ sciences such as psychology, sociology and gender studies have been incorporated. BSG’s an old-fashioned militaristic space opera in some ways, but pretty up-to-date in others.

  9. Oh wait! That’s the future we already live in. How amazingly prophetic.

    “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

  10. It was prophetic. It predicted that in the future, Milla Jovovich is awesome.

  11. “Sleepers” should be “Sleeper” I think. The former was fiction but not very science-y

  12. Whoops, you’re right. I got my Woody confused with my De Niro.

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