Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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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:

There's a long sequence where Human Main Character and Alien Sidekick break into Evil Corporate Headquarters to retrieve the Plot MacGuffin, armed with high-tech weaponry that is keyed to alien DNA and so only works for the Good Guys.

Let me stop and give some context for that. The first 30 minutes of the movie shows the systematic oppression of the mean humans over those poor aliens: the Evil Corporation is kicking them out of their garbage-strewn ghetto to relocate them to somewhere less offensive to their human neighbors. Yet these horribly oppressed aliens have guns powerful enough that two characters can hold off the human army. In fact, simply breaking into the building by firing a single shot from an alien gun creates an explosion big enough to be mistaken for a major terrorist attack; they evacuate the block.

We also know that these aliens have active smuggling operations for their contraband high-tech guns; in the long intro sequence, we see both weapon sales being made and weapon caches being found. So the aliens are established as both gun-havers and beings capable of criminal acts ... yet they sit there in unified submission, with no guerrilla fighters or even lone malcontents, as the humans waltz a tiny band of mercenaries through their slums to evict them all?

Christ, it would have been so easy to live up to the movie poster here! The humans finally cross the line, resistance flares up, aliens with scary guns riot and gain control over their ghetto turf, and it's payback time. It would have been a much better movie, too. Less lying, more excuses for summer-blockbuster violence. But noooooo, can't have the antagonists driven by noble motives. Not contrasty enough with the morally awesome Human Main Character. Let's rewrite the shit so he can fight against two different groups of Other Humans willing to murder him for money and power. Yeah!

... Ahem. Anyway, HMC and his Alien Sidekick are in the ECHQ basement, pinned down by the Obligatory Mercenary Henchmen. They're there to retrieve the fuel that AS has spent 20 years collecting, and they've finally found the canister. HMC is unsure how they're going to escape. AS grabs a few random pieces of Scattered Technology, and MacGyvers together a bomb --

Hang on, I need to stop and unpack that again.

The movie says in its backstory narration that the aliens lost their leader when their ship landed; being some sort of quasi-hive-mind or something, they promptly lost all initiative and intelligence beyond the basic ability to arrange their own subsistence. This would be a reasonable piece of lampshade hanging if it worked, but as it is, it's just a smokescreen that they turn on or off as necessary to hide the plot holes. Dude disassembles high technology to rig up a huge explosive. And in his spare time, lives in a shanty that a strong wind could push over, and trades guns to Nigerian scammers for cans of cat food.


There are aliens smart enough to smuggle guns, assemble bombs out of random technology bits, and -- wait, let's not forget -- carry out a 20-year plot to resurrect their mothership, and yet there's no freakin' resistance when the Evil Corporation raids the ghetto with eviction notices?!

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.

Here is how he meets the alien who ends up becoming his sidekick:

Whitey: Sign here so we can evict you.
Chris: You have to give me 24 hours notice.
Whitey: I see we have a slight misunderstanding here. That your kid?
Chris: Yes.
Whitey: Sign or we take him away.

This conversation is never apologized for. In fact, it is never mentioned in the movie again. Despite this, Chris repeatedly puts his life into Whitey's hands. Because clearly Whitey has had a change of heart and would never do anything bad to ... you know. People beneath his station.

Chris later realizes, after Whitey "switches teams," that Whitey is the key to the Plot MacGuffin. Somehow Whitey gets to Chris' house without being ripped apart by angry aliens, despite having earlier shown up in person to evict the whole district. They then have this conversation:

Chris: Let's go get the MacGuffin.
Whitey: No.
Chris: ... Um, okay.
(time passes)
Chris: Hey, I was thinking, you're right about the MacGuffin being a suicide mission. Maybe --
Whitey: Let's go get the MacGuffin.
Chris: ... Um, okay.

Now that it's Whitey's idea, it's on. They get the MacGuffin.

Chris: Well, thanks. The thing I promised you I'd do if we cooperated? That will have to wait because Evil Corporation is doing evil things I must fix.
Baxil: Oh my god, somebody besides Whitey just had a moment of character development!
Whitey: Oh, well fuck you then.
(Whitey clubs Chris on the head and steals his vehicle)


The vehicle gets shot down. Whitey, once again, has fucked up the plan Chris has spent 20 years working on, this time seemingly permanently. They get separated and Whitey's kid pulls a Wesley Crusher, activating some of their high-tech gear. Whitey gets attacked by the Evil Human Gang.

Giant Alien Mech: *ACTIVATES*
Whitey: I'm about to die!
City full of millions of non-humans: Hey, it's one of our giant mechs!
City full of millions of non-humans: "..."
Whitey: Nifty alien tech, don't mind if I do! (hops in)

Whitey finds Chris, who has been captured by Evil Corporation's mercenaries. There is a firefight.

Whitey: My giant invulnerable mech is taking small arms fire. Hope you don't mind me running away and letting them turn you into a medical experiment, Chris.
Chris: "..."
Whitey: We cool? We cool. Later.
White Human Mercenary: If you're going to be a chicken about this I'm just going to kill the prawn now.
Whitey: SADJKFADKJ YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!1! (leaps in slo-mo to save Chris' life)

But Chris has been wounded. Please note that I have not exaggerated the following scene.

Whitey: Hey man, because I really am a nice guy and haven't fucked up your life three times now, I want to take you back to your kid.
Chris: Leave me behind. I'm hurt too bad. I won't make it.
Chris: Oh, okay then. *gets up*
Whitey: Okay, we've got to sprint for a mile and a half to the ship. Jog behind the mech.
Chris: Can do!

So. *deep breath*

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.
Tags: films, reviews

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  • If this is to be goodbye

    I consider the following unlikely, 12/21/12 or not. However, in virtually any scenario in which: A) the world ends, and B) my words outlast me, to…

  • Baxil sighting opportunity

    Just as a heads-up, I will be attending RainFurrest this coming weekend! It's rare for me to go to cons outside of northern California owing to…

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