‘Avatar’ and ‘District 9’: Why So Misanthropic?

Do you remember that time in 2010 when two science fiction films were nominated for Best Picture? Those two films, Avatar and District 9, will have their tenth anniversary this year (in 2019…just to be clear!). Back in those days – and now, actually – it was rare for a science fiction film to be nominated for Best Picture. Neither film won the coveted Best Picture award. I’m glad that they didn’t. Neither represent the best the science fiction genre has to offer (come on, the best science fiction film of 2009 was Moon!). Both present similar stories that riff on 1980s science fiction (the best period for science fiction…maybe?) but indulge in misanthropy. 1980s science fiction was all about celebrating humanity. These two films paint humanity as a despicable species. Oh, and both films are rather mediocre…

Avatar: The Saviour of Cinema?

Avatar was the biggest push for 3D in film since the 1980s. What cannot faithfully be reproduced with a pirate copy? What will make people pay more to see a film at the cinema? That’s right, 3D! Never mind about interesting scripts and storylines, or solid, believable characters. Just rehash an old storyline and film it in 3D. Then watch the money roll in! And that’s what happened with Avatar. The entire future of the Hollywood industry was on the line. Is there any other reason why a totally mediocre film would receive so many Oscar nominations? It was all about the 3D effect, the supposed saviour of film. Avatar went on to be the highest grossing film of all time. Ten years later, every big film comes out with a 3D version that adds nothing to the film itself. We can thank Avatar for that (and who can’t wait for the various Avatar sequels we’ll be getting soon?)!

The story behind Avatar is a rehash of James Cameron’s brilliant Aliens, without any of the brilliance, by…James Cameron! Something called unobtanium is available in abundance on the distant planet Pandora. So what do we humans do? Plan an invasion! Well, the military in conjunction with a mining company have produced a programme in which humans are implanted into an ‘avatar’ of a Na’vi (the natives of Pandora). These ‘avatars’ then infiltrate the Na’vi. A crippled marine called Jake is rushed into the programme when his twin dies. It’s made very clear that the evil company just wants to invade Pandora and kill all the Na’vi. Remind you of anything? The Iraq War, Blood for Oil, perhaps? The Na’vi’s ‘Hometree’ is destroyed in a grotesque homage to 9/11. Of course, the company and the military are portrayed as evil itself, with no compassion or morality. They only think about money.

The life of the Na’vi is an extreme contrast to the human way of life. In a take on the concept of Gaia, all the Na’vi live in harmony with the planet Pandora. Pandora itself has a consciousness, a sort of bio-neural network. Na’vi physically connect with animals through strands of something in their hair. No technology exists to pollute this exquisite harmony. The humans, on the other hands, are always thinking about their own selfish goals. Technology has corrupted them. Only the humans who side with the Na’vi are “good” humans. In a throwback to 1980s science fiction films, there’s only good and evil in Avatar. Throughout the film, you are lead to cheer for the Na’vi, and boo the terrible. Of course, the Na’vi has human emotions, for the simple reason that the audience would not sympathise without this link. But this does not in any way temper the misanthropy inherent in this film. Humanity has no redeeming features at all. Cameron has taken the implicit misanthropy from his previous films (In Terminator 2, the film ends with the line: ‘If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too) and made it flesh and blood.

District 9: The Cleverest Film of 2009?

District 9 is also rife with misanthropy. The storyline is similar in basics to Avatar: man hates/doesn’t care about aliens, man becomes alien, man hates being alien, man then sees the folly of man and loves aliens, man hates man and kills man.. In the background lies a corporation thinking about money, weapons, and glory. In Avatar, it’s the mining company. In District 9, it’s MNU, a company trying to use alien weapons. District 9 does the classic sci-fi storyline of being a parable of a real life situation. Neill Blomkamp takes on the trauma of apartheid, using aliens as the outcasts. Aliens landed on earth for refuge, but were then segregated and shoved into the slums of District 9 on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The prawns have turned to crime and murder, with the implication that they’ve learned immorality from humans.

Wikus, an employee of MNU, is about to organise the eviction of aliens from District 9 to the concentration camp-like District 10. That is, until Wikus slowly becomes alien after being sprayed with alien fuel. The ‘how’ is never explained, but it is unimportant. The body horror elements give a massive nod to those of science fiction in the 1980s. Wikus begins to lose his teeth in a scene reminiscent of The Fly. He’s captured by the MNU, and then used to fire the alien weapons (only the prawns can use them). The footage of him firing these weapons echo similar scenes from Verhoeven’s Robocop.

However, unlike the body horror/sci-fi of the 1980s, misanthropy reigns in District 9. Wikus destroys a nest of alien eggs without a second thought. Wikus’s colleagues treat the aliens with utmost contempt. The people behind MNU care only about profits. Local Nigerians are just as bad, exploiting the ‘prawns’ (a disparaging term for the aliens) for money by selling them cat food or selling the female aliens as prostitutes (how very peculiar…). No humans have any redeeming qualities. Both Robocop and The Fly are about humans fighting against a transformation to retain their essential humanity. But even before his transformation, Wikus is contemptible.

Why was District 9 regarded as one of the best films of 2009? Let’s face it: it’s because it’s a parable about apartheid. I can’t imagine another reason why it was nominated for Best Picture. The promising first half is ruined by a computer game-fueled second half, full of implausible action and a clear break from the documentary style of the first half (in fact, that break is so strange that it took me out of the film completely). It is far from being “the cleverest film of 2009”, as The Independent described it.

The Misanthropy of Avatar and District 9

Do we have a great disregard for our own species? A thirst to see humans destroyed physically must exist within the general population. That might explain the popularity of Jerry Bruckheimer films. People want to punish themselves for the evils of the world, it seems. If it wasn’t for the apartheid subtext (and Peter Jackson’s blessing), District 9 would be another B-Movie consigned to DVD purgatory. If it wasn’t for 3D and James Cameron, Avatar would be laughed at and ridiculed, due to its paper-thin, predictable plot and 2D characters.

I’m probably reading too much into these mediocre films. Neither represents a triumph for the science fiction genre. Both are plain stories glossed over with gimmicks: for Avatar it’s 3D, for District 9 it’s the ghost of apartheid. Both appeal to the now inherent misanthropy in the masses, fostered by terrorism, climate change, and the loss of faith in politics. The failure of the post-Cold War world to produce freedom for all has lead to a hatred of humanity. The science fiction genre should be a vehicle for enthusiasm. Of course, I’m not advocating that all science fiction films be whimsical, flashy nonsense, full of positivity and happy endings. But they should at least be imbued with some hope for humanity! Yes, science fiction should question the progress of technology, but it doesn’t need to portray the entire human race as immoral creatures. Let’s be honest, only 90% of humans are reprehensible, vile beings (only joking!).

To paraphrase Sarah Connor, if a film, a moving series of pictures, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too…