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Space Racism = Bad (District 9)

I finally got around to checking out the District 9 trailers that everyone’s been talking about. The movie’s attracted a lot of cult attention – mainly because Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson has plastered his name all over the trailers – but I haven’t seen any sort of advanced publicity in Ireland, despite a fairly deftly-managed viral campaign in the United States. In fairness, we aren’t getting it until two weeks later than the Americans, but it would be nice to see some of these advertisements reaching us – just pretend we’re a semi-important market. For the uninitiated, it’s a movie about illegal aliens settling in South Africa and becoming second class citizens. The catch? They’re from outer space. In fairness, this year looks to be an epic year for science-fiction – Watchmen is already out, Moon is currently on release, Avatar is due out in the next few months and there seems to be legitimate buzz around The Road as an Oscar contender. Still, District 9 looks like it might just be a bit preachy for my tastes, but isn’t most science fiction?

Guess the moral...

Guess the moral...

In fact, ‘preachy’ is a word that pops up quite a lot when discussing science fiction. It’s always been the case, but is particularly obvious when you look at the big movies within the genre. The Star Trek franchise is a fairly obvious example of heavy-handedness, with movies looking at the displacing of entire communities (Star Trek: Insurrection), conservationism (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or the one with the whales) and even – though it was handled very well – a cold war analogy (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). The undercurrents within the Star Wars franchise are somewhat less obvious (I’m hesitant to use the word ‘subtle’) with George Lucas channelling the rise of Nazi Germany for the political machinations that dogged his prequel trilogy (not that they weren’t the best parts… unfortunatedly).

One of the earliest and best known examples comes from The Day The Earth Stood Still, where an alien species warns us to be wary our destructive capacities. It was a fairly bold political statement to make at the height of the Cold War and – though it doesn’t have quite the same effect in our modern day and age – it had quite the impact. The remake attempted to update the cautionary tale to warn us about the environmental costs of our actions, but whereas the original was daring the remake was just stale. And boring. That too. Cautionary tales seem to be the core of the preachiness within science fiction, in fairness, constantly granting us views of the impacts of various potential courses of action. The show The Outer Limits was built on this style of story-telling. There have been fables about genetic engineering (Gattaca) and consumer-based media (The Truman Show). Nuclear holocaust was a particularly potent theme decades ago (Planet of the Apes, Mad Max), but it seems to have somewhat faded of late. One could even see the entire zombie subgenre as a cautionary tale on the necessary limits of scientific advancement.

That’s not even getting into the social commentary, which can be handled to various degrees of success. Soylent Green showed us a society where capitalism was literally consuming us. Strange Days gave us a bizarre ‘memories-as-drugs-and-pornography’ metaphor, which worked relatively well in context. Total Recall and Starship Troopers parody (relatively subtly, compared to just about anything else in the films) or consumption of media and materialism, but that doesn’t really stop them revelling in them.

And yes, it can be a bit irritating when the message is taught straight-on and with all the subtlety of hitting you repeatedly with a rock, but at least it isn’t as bad as a movie tripping over itself. For example, I saw (most of) Speed Racer at the weekend and it taught me that excessive capitalism is bad, all packaged in a nice consumer-friendly box. Maybe I can act out the moral with the tonne of merchandise the film has produced. Then there’s the Michael Caine vehicle The Swarm, in which pesticides are so bad you can’t use them to stop killer bees (even after they’ve blown up a nuclear plant), but you can cover the ocean in oil and set it alight. Because oil slicks are entirely environmentally sound, right?

Still, preachy is better than the alternative – or at least it has benefited from producing higher quality films – which seems to be pretentious self-meditation. The Marix Trilogy as a whole was bogged down with this kind of irrelevent crap, trying to tie the series to various aspects of philosophy, but doing in in a hamfisted manner. There are times when this sort of introspective philosophical musing can work, but it needs a skilled hand. The questions of identity at the core of Gattaca, for example. The ethical issues that plague the memory-wiping hardware in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Travelling in style...

Travelling in style...

I’ll acknowledge that science fiction isn’t the only medium that enjoys including a moral as part of its message. The Dark Knight was an equally ambitious tale about morality in the modern world and Milk was obviously (albeit subtly) political. And there are dramas that deal explicitly with the days biggest moral issues – as Million Dollar Baby did with euthanasia or Crash did with racism. It’s just that the moral tends to dominate the science fiction films.

So, yep, we’re left with District 9, which looks to be a film about space racism (in South Africa!). I’ll probably catch it, because it looks interesting, but I can see a very obvious moral coming even from the trailer, let alone the viral campaign.

Still, issues or not, it looks good.

One Response

  1. It’s not just good. It’s brilliant.

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