district 9 > avatar

Article contains spoilers.

This year is a great year for science fiction films. District 9 and Avatar are not only good science fiction, they’re just plain good. Both will be remembered as top notch films. But at the end of the day, I’d have to say that District 9 is a more consequential film. Don’t misunderstand me, I thought Avatar was great. But Avatar is  a feel good action film, while District 9 actually asks some tough questions and really makes you think.

Avatar is about a human being who sides with a nature worshiping alien race in a fight against a corporation who wants to take their land. District 9 is about how human beings deal with an unexpected alien refugee problem. The second is a much more interesting scenario than the first. Let’s break it down:

  • Aliens: Avatar’s aliens are beautiful and wise. Classic “noble savage.” Seen that a million times before. District 9 aliens are odd looking, have disgusting personal habits, and operate a very hierarchical society. It’s easy to love people when they’re pretty, but it’s easy to be racist when they are ugly. That’s interesting.
  • The hero: Avatar has a classic hero who overcomes obstacles. By joining the pretty aliens, he regenerates himself into a better person and he is healed.  Nice theme for kids. But silly for adults. As many people point out, District 9’s “hero” is a human bureaucrat who is clearly out of his league when the evil corporation is hired to forcibly move the alien ghetto. The guy is more realistic – we sympathize because he’s trying to be a good family man, but he’s clearly a dork. More of an anti-hero. Even when he “joins” the other side, it’s only because he thinks he can be cured of a genetic disease that’s turning him into an alien. He hates the aliens. “Racism” does not magically disappear when you contact other people (or aliens) like it does in Avatar.
  • Politics: Avatar has a simple, but effective, corporations vs. aliens theme. In contrast, District 9 has more realistic politics. At first, humans are curious about the aliens and even welcoming. Later, they become a “social problem.” Aliens have weird habits, they attract the mafia, buy drugs, etc. Corporations are just the tool that people use to “solve” the alien “question.”
  • Sociology: Avatar is world systems theory, developed humans (the West) exploit Third World peoples (the Na’vi). In District 9, the issue is more complex. The aliens obviously are technologically superior, but we only see the refugees in the South Africa ghetto. The alien society spills out into the human society, despite the fences erected around the ghetto. Kind of like the various well between nations set up around the world. There’s an interesting ecology & symbiosis that we can only imagine.

At the end of the day, I loved both films. Avatar’s contribution is outstanding technique and strong linear story telling. It’s visually outstanding and fun to watch. But District 9 lives up to the best of science fiction by creating a fictional world that’s allows us to think about some very hard questions.


Written by fabiorojas

December 26, 2009 at 12:49 am

Posted in fabio, fun

10 Responses

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  1. Imagine an “Avatar” in which beautiful, spiritual aliens come here and with persuasion, effectively convince us with a direct message to stop pollution, clear out the cities, go back to the land, live closer to nature and be one with life. Everyone obeys. Millions — billions — walk out the cities. Oil rigs are abandoned. Three days later, billions are dying, since we have zero ability to live like. Old, infants, sick, all die first. Stronger people survive longer and some small groups begin to establish camps in the forests where some more die from poisons because they have not yet learned which fruits and roots and shoots they can eat. We see different groups survivors killing each other over basic resources.

    Meanwhile, one guy – an old white guy, a retired General Motors plant foreman who was actually hiking the Adirondacks and missed the aliens – uses a mix of industrial skills and builds a frannistan that negates the alien mind waves.

    Everyone lives happily ever after. (Oh, I forgot the part where the alien girl is in an abandoned kitchen at a large hotel and she begins sampling the desserts.)

    Anyone who is troubled by civilization is perfectly free to use their 1300cc brain to successfully hunt and gather.


    Michael E. Marotta

    December 26, 2009 at 2:17 am

  2. I thought the movie was more anti-corporate than anti-technology. For example, it’s made clear at multiple points that they have the technology to do amazing medical cures and are willing to trade with the Na’vi. What the movie is really about is the limits of trade: they don’t really need what we have, but we take it anyway, because of the insane market value of what happens to be below the Na’vi home.



    December 26, 2009 at 2:32 am

  3. I highly value the readings here which evidence a lot of hard thought and which provide me with the opportunity to think hard as well. Ideological debates never go anywhere useful.

    Finance capitalism and industial technology are intricately linked by deeply causal factors, including the arithmetic and morality of risk, the inventions of new, abstract moneys and wealth, and limited government in support of individual rights. That was the Enlightenment.

    In April 2010, I complete a master’s in social science to cap my bachelor’s in criminology. Few of my peers, colleagues or mentors share my views. In fact, none of them do.


    Michael E. Marotta

    December 26, 2009 at 3:09 am

  4. I was wondering what you’d think about this perspective:



    December 26, 2009 at 3:37 pm

  5. Michael: I agree that industrialization, capitalism, and technology are all bundled together, but as far as the movie goes, Avatar spends a lot more time trashing capitalism than technology.

    L: I saw that (side note: went to college w/ the author) and I agree with the main theme. There’s sci fi story line about white people absolving themselves by leading the brown folk. My only disagreement is that the author lumps district 9 in with avatar. Yes, both are about race, but they’re very different films. (Exercise left to the reader. Hint: Who wins at the end of the movie?)



    December 26, 2009 at 8:17 pm

  6. Watched Avatar yesterday and it was about what I expected – it was a stupendous technical accomplishment with a beautiful representation of a fantasy world but as a story the movie was fairly predictable and boring. Take away all of the graphics (and the cool 3D!) and it would be a major snoozer.

    District 9 was a fun twist on the alien invasion subgenre (putting the humans in the bad guy role) and was full of surprises from the beginning. I thought the story of District 9 was superior in every way, including its use of humor, which seemed to be entirely missing from Avatar (unless you count the unintentional humor derived from the over-the-top references to the war on terror).



    December 27, 2009 at 2:46 am

  7. Completely agree – Avatar at about a half billion dollars had some impressive CGI – but D9 was just edgier and more provocative – and much more well thought out – Avatar’s script was lazy and boring by comparison, but D9 took one to a bizarre, interesting and strangely familiar place, without the strange plastic feeling of avatar – and yes, i did see it it 3d – but it still felt plastic. at the end of the day it comes down to this: D9 had balls – Avatar had budget. still – big kudos to cameron for pushing the 3D envelope…



    December 27, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  8. I liked D9, but it got so much hype around original vision of Sci Fi and to me it seemed more like a well-executed b movie in an interesting locale but not a major artistic statement or new Sci Fi vision.



    December 29, 2009 at 1:35 am

  9. I haven’t seen Avatar, but agree that D9 was a very interesting film in many ways. I’d just add the fact that it takes place in South Africa and that, in many ways, it both mirrors Apartheid-style technics of separation and takes advantage of the Afrikaner inferiority complex that played such a role in Apartheid. Having spent time in South Africa and in Namibia, I thought this angle made it more interesting than just generic “racism”.



    December 29, 2009 at 2:55 am

  10. I agree the “book” for District 9 was very good, but the writing wasn’t great and the third act and ending didn’t live up to the movie’s potential.

    I’d be interested in reading a review by you of 12 monkeys, which I thought did a great job catching the dark absurdism of real life and was kind of a zero flaws film.


    Hopefully Anonymous

    December 30, 2009 at 9:30 pm

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