Fans of thoughtful, well-crafted science-fiction had much to be pleased with in 2009. Star Trek, Cold Souls, Moon: It was a movable feast of alternate realities and social commentary! And the dual crown diadems in the last of the aughties were, without a doubt, Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 and James Cameron’s Avatar.
Aside from the fact that the difference between their budgets is roughly the GDP of a small European country, these two flicks have more in common than not. Aliens? Check. Next-level CGI? Check. Overt social commentary in the form of an outsider who becomes the de facto leader of the subjugated aliens’ resistance movement? Check and double check. But more importantly, both films have been nominated for Best Picture in the 2010 Oscars—a blue-moon event, considering that the Academy is infamous for snubbing sci-fi flicks.
Which begs the obvious question: Which of these two is better science-fiction? In those heady days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, before the genre became synonymous for extreme special-effects coupled with extreme brain-deadedness, sci-fi was a legitimate (and arguably indispensable) vehicle for social criticism. Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey made for tremendously entertaining popcorn fare, and were also piercing dissections of the social and political ills of their time.
Avatar is the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, making the choice seem obvious. But there’s little doubt that District 9 is better sci-fi by merit of the issues it tackles. Blomkamp’s film skillfully blended issues of apartheid, authoritarianism and militarism, corporate malfeasance and humanity’s perennial penchant for tribalism into a first-order morality tale; the humans’ cruelty to the Prawns is only magnified by the juxtaposition of their overtly-barbarous behavior with the seemingly-barbarous appearance of the aliens.
Avatar, conversely, is rightly criticized as Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas in space; for all of the film’s genuinely groundbreaking technical wizardry, the plot is a warmed-over mishmash of the Noble-Savage-Eco-Warrior tale, and ‘stilted’ is an over-generous description of the dialogue. Moreso, the plot and characters are simply a too-familiar vehicle for the CGI.
Maybe a monorail tour is the most apt metaphor: Going in, we already know that Jake will infiltrate Na’vi society, come to sympathize with their plight, switch sides and become the savior of his former enemies. District 9 gives us no such easy out. Protagonist Wikus van der Merwe is selfish and sociopathic, and only begrudgingly teams up with the Prawns when his Cronenberg-esque bout of Body Horror leaves him no other option.
And that’s the real crux of why District 9 is better sci-fi—Jake’s transformation into a Na’vi is desired, Wikus’ into a Prawn is not. For Jake, arriving on Pandora is an escape from a sunless, polluted earth, and restoration for his physically-decrepit body. His spiritual awakening hinges on his acceptance of the Na’vi way of life, and the audience knows it. District 9 operates in less moralizing territory; Wikus must first de-evolve into a wretched, shambolic crab-person and accept the fate thrust upon him before he can atone for his sins.
Avatar consoles its audience with a Miltonian yarn of Paradise Regained, where District 9 shocks and horrifies by forcing them to confront the depths of their own Inferno. Which means that Avatar is actually science-fantasy (escapism) to District 9s science-fiction (social commentary). There’s nothing wrong with good ol’ fashioned escapism, but it’s a disservice to both films to confuse the two.