Loving the Alien: Human Enemies in Avatar and District 9

Ever since Dr Rotwang’s android led the workers to tear down the city in the spectacular final act of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), mans potential for self destruction has been a key focus of sci fi cinema. If we’re not living in dystopian nightmares our scientific advancements are turning us into incredible shrinking men, crafting our mechanical tyrannisers or purging society with deadly viruses. The omnipresent threat of aliens has also been used to represent the threat we hold to ourselves. Silver screens saw emotion draining beings in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) provide a warning against communists turning us all into one faceless organism, but since then alien invasion films have predominantly been about rallying humans together. Independence Day (1996), for example, saw African Americans, Jewish Americans and Rich Americans join forces with all other kinds of Americans to save the world.

But recently things have switched around, with the past year seeing Neil Blommkamp’s exceptional debut District 9 (2009), and James Cameron’s box office colossus Avatar (2009), featuring aliens tyrannized by man. The aliens are still metaphorical, but rather then representing a negative side of man that must be destroyed, they stand in for marginalised peoples needing protection.

The Prawns of District 9, labelled as such by humans not just for their appearance but for the fact they are viewed as bottom feeders, are stranded on earth, deprived of all rights and forced into slums where they have no hope of salvation; a distressing depiction of the policies today’s wealthy countries hold on immigrants. Prawns have no say in their evacuation to a new slum – District 10, likened to a concentration camp – and merely slapping the evacuation notice counts as their seal of approval. They have even less choice in being sought after by gangsters and arms manufactures, both subjecting them to deadly experiments to uncover the secrets behind their advanced weaponry. It’s apt that achieving this goal would only create more vicious ways for man to annihilate himself.

Alien rights are also nonexistent in Avatar, where the destruction of sacred forests on the fictional planet Pandora so that precious materials can be mined for man’s commercial gain is a decision made independently of the indigenous Na’vi.  Of course the main source of Avatar’s acclaim is the jaw dropping beauty of Pandora and it’s inhabitants; each glowing flower, bead of fresh water and strand of hair breaths freely, submerging you in the perfectly rendered 3D environment. This acute realism reminds us of the glorious rainforests and cultures that once sheltered Earth, but now face extinction.

The suffering and hate incurred in District 9’s slums and Pandora are not warnings of dark futures approaching, but acknowledgements of the Earths current state. Crucially, the unrelenting exploitation of other cultures for commercial gain mirrors the dubious motivations behind the War on Iraq, where not only human lives but valuable oil fields are at stake.

The immediacy of District 9’s issues is enforced by it’s pseudo documentary style, with interviews and news reports that mimic the style of contemporary news coverage down to the scrolling banners blending seamlessly with more conventional cinematic scenes. This device is shared by Children of Men (2006), which portrays a not so distant future where global infertility has bred dystopian chaos. Both films also boast sweeping cameras which stagger haphazardly after the characters, adding a sense of urgency to the cinematic sequences as dirt and blood stain the lenses.

Confronting contemporary issues through more direct, emotionally engaging means is also occurring in popular horror at the moment by casting the zombie fad aside and sucking audience compassion toward vampires. While observing shambling zombies allows us to contemplate the degeneration of society into brainless slaves, recent fanged sensations such as True Blood (2008-Present), and indie revelation Let The Right One In (2008), feature vampires as vulnerable members of society who look and love very similarly to us.

Although not all vampires in True Blood are as chivalrous as the smouldering male lead Bill Compton, they are all treated with the same distrust and prejudice as any newfound minority can expect. Swept away by Bill’s charm, Sookie Stackhouse is hunted by an unhinged serial killer for being a ‘fang banger’, her telepathic ability allowing us to hear the hate coursing through her fellow humans (not that many of them don’t happily voice it). Conversely, the fact she cannot hear vampires thoughts emphasises their position as the mysterious ‘other’. While the fetishisation of vampires in True Blood, and the teen orientated Twilight films, helps align audiences on a primal level, Let the Right One In is subtler in its methods. This compelling Swedish fable sees Oskar, a nervous schoolchild fallen victim to bullies, finding solace in a friendship with Eli, an ageless vampire in the body of a dishevelled twelve year old girl. Despite Eli’s thirst for blood her affection is far stronger than that of Oskar’s separated parents, each too preoccupied to notice their child’s torment.

Despite so many amiable creatures representing modern societies needless victims, in all the above we are still anchored to the story by human protagonists. While the humans who sympathise with vampires are compassionate from the off, Jake Sully and Wikus Van De Merwe, human anchors in Avatar and District 9 respectively, are both initially enemies to the aliens. Grinning and joking as a batch of Prawn eggs are incinerated, Wikus is the most vile of the two, yet in each case their naivety allows us to form early connections with them. It’s only when they begin their transformations into the other species, and become victims of the exploitation they once reaped, that we can truly empathise with them.

As with all rules there must be exceptions. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), adapted from Walter Tevis’ sublime novel, focuses on an alien who comes to earth to map a path for his dying species to follow. With its expressionistic flair and casting of the otherworldly David Bowie as the title character, Roeg’s film potently captures the novel’s existential loneliness. Offering an inversion of Avatar and District 9’s structure, Bowie’s alien gradually becomes more human, descending into a complacent depression and losing the will to save his species.

If self destruction is inherent to the human condition, perhaps this enhances our ability to empathise with the Prawns and Na’vi. Seeing these embodiments of humanity overcome adversity gives hope that we can change for the better, but first society must, as Jake and Wikus do, form new modes of thought. As long as we’re not actually relying on becoming ten foot tall blue Na’vi, things might be salvageable.

By James Taylor

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