District 9, and other science fiction

Spoilers!

Only a few short weeks ago I was riding my bike through Center City when I saw a poster in a bus stop, advising me to report any non-humans to proper authorities.  Needless to say, I was sucked in to the viral ad immediately; though many of the bus riders I’ve shared a seat with are borderline humanoid, I had never imagined an open campaign against them.  A quick web search revealed the true aim of the poster, which was to advertise District 9.

The film centers around an alien camp in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa.  Our (occasional) hero is Wikus van der Merwe, a dink at MNU and an ambassador for the world.  His main task is to evict the dangerously exploded population of “prawns” in District 9: a job that he tackles eagerly to impress his father-in-law.  The aliens themselves are frighteningly formic, and they seem to be terrorizing the community.  Murder, rape, and looting are prevalent activities indulged in by the menacing other-worlders, and their weapons, though impressively destructive, are genetically coded to only fire at the touch of a “prawn”.

Things get hairy (scaly?) when Wikus is exposed to a biological toxin that starts transforming his DNA from human to “prawn”.  His investigation into his own ailment uncovers the breadth of the true brutality being committed by MNU.

Contrary to some recent introspection into the world of science fiction, I am more of the belief that while accurate science in a movie is preferable (and most often, necessary), the admission of a new element for the sake of a well-crafted yarn is justified if the yarn is well crafted.

For example: the weapons of the film that were not man-made had the interesting fail-safe of genetic coding.  Without the genetic imprint of the alien species that created it, the electricity gun, or the gravity gun, or the robot bio-suit, become completely worthless outside of dismantlement for scrap.  This is ridiculous–the amount of energy necessary for such a weapon to exist is absurd, and well outside the bounds of current technology.  But it wasn’t a problem in the film.  It was crafty, interesting, and a compelling plot point.

Something that irritates me is not the disregard or addition of scientific elements to tell a tale, but the disregard or addition of scientific elements in a setting where those specific laws don’t necessarily need to be adjusted and ARE, but only for a moment.  Off hand, I can think of at least 3 Michael Bay movies where, for no specific reason other than an opportunity for vague and senseless drama, the laws of physics are warped or ignored.  Understandably, a movie about GIANT ROBOTS has to have some allowance for the fantastic; on the other hand, the physics should be consistent.  Momentum should have some bearing in a movie about GIANT ASTEROIDS.

A while back, Doug posted about Dune by Frank Herbert, a book about a boy named Paul and his unavoidable submergence in a galactic quest to breed a superhuman.  The book takes many liberties–among them, a desert-worm that can grow as long as a city block, or longer–but presents it all in the spirit of narrative.  That is, nothing is introduced without purpose.  The manipulation of science does not happen inconsistently; rather, the world is created (or recreated, or forced to adapt) to a new rule or rules, and the audience is immersed in a world where the novel becomes necessary, or destroyed.

The brief tangent seems rather arbitrary, but it leads in to my main point, which is: District 9 is AWESOME.  Gory at times, certainly, but tastefully so: shaky camera men and goop-on-the-lens allows the viewer to create as little or as much violence as they find palpable.  Wikus goes through a metamorphosis that would make Gregor Samsa look like a cardboard cut out, and guides us through startling scenes showing human beings at their worst.

This was the movie that was supposed to be Halo, and you may thank your own personal God/god/gods/(n/a) that it wasn’t.  Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp, it was solid and believable from beginning to end.  That’s saying something, I would think, considering the nature of the material and, even more so, the genre.

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