August 19th, 2009

his name is not orly

When fiction lies

(NOTE: If you were linked directly to this post instead of reading it on my journal or your friends list, it contains many spoilers. Beware.)

I have a bad habit, and I'll admit it: I nitpick movies.

It comes with being a writer. When you tell stories, you care about stories. When you care about stories, you explore them -- savor them. When someone else comes along with their story, you want to leap into it with both feet. And when someone comes along with a movie with great potential and poor execution, you feel betrayed.

The thing is, this feeling is totally independent of the quality of the movie. When I watched Watchmen, I spent 90% of my review ranting about how they removed the source material's moral ambiguities, before adding in almost as an aside that it was great and worth seeing. I've harshed on Star Wars (I still don't think aris_tgd has forgiven me for that one ;-)) and demolished 300, so I get critical on the good and bad alike.

['District 9' movie poster] If you think this is leading up to something, good call: kadyg and I watched District 9 on Sunday.

With an introduction like that, you know I'm going to be critical of it, so the real question is: Was it a good movie? And this is hard for me to say, because it was technically excellent, inventive sci-fi ... but, no, not really.

I will admit up front that I am biased about this. I care about stories ... and all of this movie's failings were on the story level. If you want a brainless blockbuster with some generic Hollywood liberal moralizing, you'll love it. And if you don't mind being lied to --

Lied? you might ask. How does a piece of fiction "lie?" Aren't fictional stories lies by definition?

... Okay, so here's the thing.

When good fictional stories lie, it's in the service of exposing deeper truths about the sapient condition. They set up what-ifs to provoke thought. They shake us out of comfortable expectations. They help bring us to a new perspective on something we deal with here in life.

When bad stories lie, they don't tell the truth.

['No Humans Allowed'] Take a closer look at this sign in the "District 9" movie poster. Take a look at the ominous warning of the slogan. Now, I'm about to give you a spoiler, but it's an important and nonspecific one: That sign occurs nowhere in the movie. This is not a movie about the oppression of humans ... except allegorically, and even there it fails in some important ways.

Before you even walk into the theater the movie is not telling you the truth. This is not, if you will pardon the pun, a good sign.

There are a few places where the movie gets technological details wrong -- such as when one character eludes authorities for days while carrying an active cell phone -- but these can generally be forgiven as lies in the service of the story. (To their credit, they do lampshade the cell phone bit, by having the authorities trace the one call he does receive.) Unfortunately, the key word is "generally." When the technological glitches spill out into character glitches, the story starts falling apart.

Let's dip into the spoilers for an illustrative example:

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The rule of thumb for a fantasy/sci-fi story is that you get one free "what-if" that changes the world -- what if people could turn into dragons? what if the toys on your dresser were real people? what if aliens landed? -- that your audience will accept without explanation, and every other fantastic element you introduce has to be justified in some way. Otherwise, suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. District 9 uses up its allotment of free what-ifs when the alien ship lands in Johannesburg, South Africa to make a racial meta-point; they sorta kinda pretend to justify the aliens living in the slums despite technology far beyond Earth's. But they've lost suspension of disbelief by the time the aliens -- without exception -- play helpless victim to Evil Corporation's bullshit.

And speaking of Johannesburg ... by far the worst of the movie's failings is that, while ostensibly a socially conscious parable about race and racism, it spends the entire film kicking you in the face with White Privilege.

The plot is about how awful racism is. The story is about how White Guys are important, and it's the Lesser Race's job to be passively grateful at Whitey's good intentions because after all Whitey knows best.

You think I'm exaggerating or being overly sensitive. I wish I was.

The examples just drip off the film. But one of the most iconic moments has to have been the pro-alien protests by a group of bleeding-heart liberals at the beginning.

The aliens are never actually named as a species (!!!); all the official movie material refers to them canonically as "non-humans." (!) However, the movie's Evil Corporation employees immediately coin them "prawns" due to their vaguely crustacean appearance. "Prawn" is thrown around as an ethnic slur throughout.

Guess what the pro-alien protesters have on their signs?

This is ... I don't even know how to address that sort of thoughtlessness. Would the movie makers go to a Black History Month rally with a sign reading "We ♥ Coons"? Dear god, no, because that would be offensive beyond the bounds of reason. I'm ashamed that I even had to write that for purposes of the analogy. Yet we're supposed to believe entire crowds of nonhuman sympathizers would make that monumental of a gaffe?

Then there's the human main character. Let's just call him "Whitey." The primary theme of the movie is that Whitey is a dick, but that's OK because ... well, you really need to see it to understand why this is such a huge privilege issue. This is going to be long, but I will try to make it entertaining, and I promise I'm building up to a point.

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In isolation, Whitey's unbroken streak of stunning assholery could be written off as Hollywood protagonist behavior. But this is not a movie that gives you the luxury of ignoring its context.

District 9 made a big point of filming in Johannesburg. They had a huge opening sequence showing the evils of apartheid and the nightmare of mistreatment handed down from the bureaucracy. All of their web promotional material is explicitly about the racial unfairness that nonhumans face. In short, District 9 itself made race an issue. And here you have the main character, a white male human, at every possible turn screwing over his nonhuman ally, even to the point of physical violence, and being unconditionally forgiven for it, with no discussion or apology or even any need for such.

Then look at the pattern again, and put it together with the earlier issues brought up in the ECHQ infiltration scene. Not only is Whitey above criticism, he is also the only one who is important. We never see an actual alien operating any of the alien weaponry; that's Whitey's privilege. We never see a plan being executed unless it's one that Whitey OK'd, or one that was done on Whitey's behalf. And Whitey has no obligation to any of the aliens; he is driven largely by his interactions with other (white) humans (the mercenaries and his wife).

If this were all deliberate, it would be brilliant: a movie about racial oppression meta-critiquing racial oppression! But it is not; and so it's somewhere in between stupefying and scary.

The film explicitly presents itself as a critique of racism. If the film meant to critique the things I am pointing out here, it could have done so. It does not; there is not even an attempt. The main character is never held responsible for his outrageous moral failures, and in fact is held up as praiseworthy for making his Hard Protagonist Moral Choices, and given the standard Hollywood Redemption Ending.

District 9 is simply blind to its own faults. And in a movie that puts so much effort into its presentation ... that's extremely hard to forgive.

Letter grade: This is tough. Technical presentation is excellent; story is an utter failure. I'm not sure it's really possible to average those two together and give a meaningful result in the middle. Nevertheless, let's call it C+, and acknowledge that that can vary widely in either direction based on how much the issues in my review troubled you.

Edited to add: Several people are saying that based on my review they aren't going to watch the movie. Thank you for reading and giving my opinions weight. I would also urge you to skim through the comments thread, where several others have objected to my characterization of the movie; I've wavered back and forth over whether I was too harsh with it, and some other plausible narratives around the protagonists' actions have been proposed. If you're on the fence, read the whole thing.

Edit x2: ... And when you do, start here. In comments is a strong argument that the privilege issue is in fact intentional, and thus that it's a lot smarter movie than I give it credit for.
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