Monday, January 4, 2010

Dances with shellfish.

Don't read this if you haven't seen District 9 and Avatar.

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Sci-Fi might be lauded as the cinematic genre that lends itself most willingly and transparently to allegory, and District 9 and Avatar are certainly exemplary of this bias. Both films simplify, for the purpose of moralizing, one of the formative moments of the last five hundred or so years: the colonial encounter.

Both movies use non-humans to represent the dehumanization by the colonizer of the colonized. In District 9, the setting is a city dealing with a displaced population (we are led to think of the New World and the African diaspora). Every human we meet harbors some bigoted view of the prawns, ranging from open hatred to patronizing contempt. The journey ok the mentally-challenged protagonist traces the depth of this bigotry, as he is forced to rely upon those he can see only as dangerously incompetent and stupid. Bigotry's irrationality and potency take center stage in what is surely the movie's most irritating scene, where Wikus assaults Christopher Johnson, with the hopes of commandeering his ship and curing himself on his own. Our perspective beyond the screen makes Wikus's decision as abhorrent as it is stupid: Christopher Johnson is the only with any competence in flying, and the only one with any chance at all of knowing how to reverse Wikus's tranformation. Wikus, though, cannot see from this perspective, because he cannot overcome his epistemological barriers. For him, prawns are always inferior. It is not until he embraces his transformation--symbolized by him stepping into the prawn battle suit--that he can understand Christopher Johnson as an equal; until that point, he sees himself as the boss. The movie has an uncharacteristically sad ending; Christopher Johnson escapes, but his time in transit is much too long for cinematic gratification. In the mean time, district 9 is moved into a more efficient concentration camp. And while Wikus has overcome his bigotry, no one else has. (I will say that I enjoy how many technical points, particularly regarding the origin(s) of the prawns, are left unaddressed.)

Avatar is set much earlier in the history of colonialism, and keeps the relationship simple: the colonizers are landing on alien soil and extracting resources as cheaply as possible. The narrative relies on old fears of ethnic contagion (think Heart of Darkness) but deploys them with the liberal view of the white man as savior (think Dances with Wolves). While District 9 was concerned with the question of how different groups of people can live along side one another, Avatar is concerned with how greed ruins purity--in this view, the allegory of colonialism is an allegory for corporatism, which nowadays amounts to the same thing. The advantage lent by Sci-Fi is that the old liberal trope that mistakes the Indian for nature can be relieved of its racism: here the natives are verifiably connected to their ecosystem. The plot is driven by the blindness on the part of the colonizers, which prevents them from seeing Pandora in terms of anything but exchange value. This forges the epistemological barrier between the native population and the colonizers, with the latter (excepting our wise liberal surrogates) implacably decimating with no regard for efficiency or taste, and the former left unable to act at all. Like District 9, this barrier provides a dramatic climax: the gunships are fast approaching, the warning issued, and yet they do not flee. Why are they so stupid? you ask. Again irrationality signals difference. Unable to comprehend the essential differences between themselves and the human aggressors, the Na'vi cannot, even in the face of all evidence, believe the assault to be real, and still further they cannot conceive of it being successful. Even the choice to flee is not truly theirs to make. A full understanding of the destructive capacity of the human exchange value economy is not arrived at until Jake Sully wrests ownership of his body (his human body) away from corporate control. Once it has been spirited away to the Tree of Souls, he can claim his rightful place as the leader of a society that evidently is incapable of organizing itself against an imminent threat.

This movie ends happily though. The capitalists are run off, and the pure natives can continue to commune with nature. What is the moral we learn from this story? Perhaps that if the Native Americans really could commune with nature, we wouldn't be here to talk about it? Or maybe that Kevin Costner didn't do a good enough job sticking up for them?