Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned

district_nineI saw District 9 yesterday.  This gory bore won an 88% rating at the Tomatometer?  As well as rave reviews from intelligent, well-educated people across the age spectrum?  Once again, as with Star Wars, I find myself wondering if I’m in a parallel universe.

After a gritty documentary-style start with an interesting premise, the film abandons all pretense of depth or subtlety and becomes a derivative, unrelenting splatterfest.  Toss Alien Nation, The Fly and Enemy Mine in a bowl, add a splash of Cry, The Beloved Country and Starship Troopers, mix a bit of E. T. and Close Encounters — not forgetting Kafka’s Metamorphosis with some Robocop dressing and a pinch of Chaplin via Wall-e… and you get an idea of what a jumble of recycled clichés District 9 is.

Coherence, scientific or any other kind, is non-existent.  The aliens are insectoid and seem to have castes differing in mental capacity, yet all appear to be male (since they reproduce by laying eggs, either females or hermaphrodites would be prominently represented or they would have a queen; and if the latter, the humans could have stopped their reproduction cycle by killing her).  They have bio-weapons that humans cannot use — yet the aliens can’t use them either until the mutating human’s genetic signature begins to match the weapons’ trigger setting. Their ship has remained stubbornly dead for twenty years, but activates instantly when the plot demands it.  The black fluid one of them creates is good for everything, from powering ships to altering DNA.  Two individuals with totally different physiologies become buddies.  There’s also the obligatory precocious tot (addressed, with numbing predictability, as “son” by “his father”).  The upper-caste aliens have completely human motives and responses.  All the humans except one are single-note stereotypes.  And the quasi-sympathetic anti-hero undergoes a Lamarckian change that’s as bogus as the uplifting life-lesson that accompanies it.

district9The cruelties of segregation, the plight of refugees, our treatment of Others — those are burning subjects.  So is the question of how we would interact with sentient aliens.  None of them gets real treatment here.  Instead, the film manipulates its viewers into feeling virtuous by being superficially “daring”.  District 9 is neither science fiction nor social commentary; it’s violence porn — or, as producer Peter Jackson himself called it on io9, splatstick.

44 Responses to “I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned”

  1. Walden2 says:

    This is exactly what I was afraid of regarding this film.

    Now I have not yet seen District 9, but I got the feeling as I read and saw more about it that the film was not the next 2001 as some critics were making it out to be. Or should I say the critics were at least raving about it as the best SF in years. Well, compared to most of the SF junk we’ve had so far this summer, D9 probably is an Oscar winner in comparison.

    To be fair, I have not see Moon yet, either, which I have heard good things about from people who actually know a thing or two about SF and space exploration. Have you seen it yet, Athena? I would definitely like your views on it. Moon may be tough to find, however, as it had a $5 million budget and is considered an art film, so it won’t be anywhere near a multiplex.

    Athena, it isn’t so much that you exist in a parallel universe but that you are just slightly more educated on the subjects of SF and biology than the average film critic. I think those folks got caught up in the fact that the aliens did not land in NYC and LA (and several said as much) but in South Africa, which for most Americans would be an alien world in itself.

    Throwing in the whole apartheid comparisons was probably enough to make these same critics feel good enough that what they were seeing was a monumental work of art with a Message, which they somehow assume most other SF films never have.

    These are probably the same film critics who raved about the new Star Trek film earlier this summer, which turned out to be a festering piece of junk masquerading as the original franchise. Apparently the only major qualification one needs to be a general purpose film critic is the ability to afford a ticket.

  2. Athena says:

    I haven’t seen Moon yet, Larry, though it’s playing at an indie movie house nearby (this is Boston, remember?). I should hie myself to see it before it vanishes.

    You have a point that the mothership not hovering over NYC or LA is considered very “cutting edge” — as though that alone excused it from minimum additional standards of narrative, characterization, etc. The fanbois are agitating for the firing of the critic that dared to publish the first negative review of D9. So much for “understanding the Other”.

  3. Carlos says:

    Really, what did you expect?

    I’m not going to even waste money or time watching this movie.

    I highly recommend Moon though, way more substance.

  4. Athena says:

    The trailer and the director’s earlier 6-minute mockumentary were intriguing. Also, I was willing to tolerate the heavy-handed moralizing and the silly anthropomorphizing. But I did expect less gore and more plot. I don’t think that’s too much to ask!

  5. I have not seen District 9, but I will also recommend Moon. I saw it last Thursday, it delivered in ways I never expected. It wasn’t a stellar work of perfection, but it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen this year other than Let the Right One In, maybe.

  6. Athena says:

    Indeed, the consensus on Moon is that it truly makes you think. It’s on my list, along with Bigelow’s Hurt Locker.

  7. Walden2 says:

    I just read a bunch of the User’s Comments reviews of District 9 in the IMDB page for the film.

    Athena, I am starting to think that maybe you and I are in a parallel universe.

    At least with this summer Star Trek film, the initial rave reviews on IMDB soon gave way to folks realizing what a piece of shiny crap it was once they actually started thinking about this popcorn nightmare.

    Not so with District 9. I guess all one has to do is put some aliens in a different setting, throw in one token social issue, and voila! SF masterpiece as far as the masses are concerned.

    I have to see Moon now, assuming it is still in our universe.

  8. Athena says:

    It doesn’t much matter, Larry, compared to people storming clinics and appearing “spontaneously” in meetings about health care carrying loaded guns. But it’s the same mindset of self-satisfied entitlement, carried to extremes. Re-read your late Roman history, and you may find a few parallels.

  9. Walden2 says:

    Now THIS is a film review:

    I remember at the time even the stuffy, elitist NPR reviewer was so overcome by seeing the dinosaurs on the big screen seeming so real that he didn’t even bother to seriously critique JP.

  10. Suzy says:

    I saw it this week (first movie I’ve seen in a cinema since 2003) and loved it! Entertaining and different (not set in the USA!), with a bit of dark humor, the human protagonist wasn’t the usual tedious macho gung-ho type, and the aliens were sympathetic (after a while – the baby one was seriously cute). I’ll definitely be getting the DVD.

  11. Athena says:

    Well, chacun à son goût. I saw it on a cheap matinee, and even so I still regret the waste of time and money.

  12. Caliban says:

    Just saw it this afternoon. You missed an influence–Robocop, complete with its satire of corporate culture and the innate violence of capitalism.

    It didn’t bother me as much as it did you, although I did see the disconnects– how is it they could fix it now, but not then? Paternal feelings towards a hatchling? Both a fuel and a dessert topping, I mean, a DNA changer.

    When he first discovers the fluid, I thought it was going to be some sort of royal jelly–that the workers were trying to get one of them to be one of the leader caste, who could fix the mothership and/or lead the workers, and that Wikus interrupts this. In retrospect, my plot would have been better.

    On the other hand, I like the space-slum-opera theme (writing several stories in this genre myself) and the satire was appreciated. The Nigerian gangs just remind us that military-industrial corporations are just bigger versions of gangs.

    And, despite the gaping inconsistencies–hardly anything can beat this summer’s Star Trek for inconsistency and scientific WTFs.

    I wouldn’t go looking to Moon for a better film. Nancy Kress wrote a brilliant take-down of it on her blog (her July 12, 2009 entry, you have to go a ways to find it)
    (Or you can find it reproduced on Mike Flynn’s blog. )
    I hate movies (and most stories) about clones, for all the bad reasons that Moon seems to embody. I’m definitely not going to bother going to see it.

    I don’t disagree with your critiques, although personally I’m glad I saw it. (I was recovering from giving blood, so feel free to chalk it up to lack of oxygen to my brain. 🙂 ) I agree with Nancy Kress’ summary (of District 9; sounds like Moon is unsalvageable): it would have been so easy to make this so much better.

  13. Athena says:

    Actually, I thought of Robocop but decided it overlapped with Iron Man in both visuals and concept.

    Your idea about the fluid being a royal jelly that would turn one of them into a queen with the brains and charisma to match is simply terrific. In this connection, one thing that made me literally itch with irritation was the two aliens calling each other “father” and “son”. Eh?

    I didn’t see Moon, and the more I read about it the more I’m glad I didn’t. Cranky at the Movies, heh,hee! And I agree with you and Kress. Given the premise, District 9 could have been an amazing film. That is one reason why I was so irritated. It had so many interesting items to explore: the slum setting, the aliens being neither angels nor demons, the insectoid biology/anthropology. The “uniqueness” they achieved was the equivalent of someone coming up with ravioli ice cream.

  14. Athena says:

    Postscript: your idea about a queen-like leader would also be a great explanation for the spaceship crashing: if the ship lost its queen, it might well degenerate into the starving, milling horde that we see at the start of the film. After all, this is what happens to an ant, termite or bee hive if they’re left headless.

  15. Caliban says:

    Robocop, to my mind, had more of the satire of capitalism and the violence inherent in capitalism, than Iron Man.

    Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I like my royal jelly idea. A shame they didn’t go down that path. 🙂 Maybe I’ll try to write a story along those lines….

  16. Athena says:

    I agree, and have changed the reference in the essay.

    If you do write the royal jelly story, let me know if you need any help with the biology! I’d love to see it done.

  17. Walden2 says:

    I wonder if social insects could ever become intelligent enough
    to have technology and a civilization?

    I have read enough about ants to know that despite what seems
    to be a well-organized and planned community that they all run
    on mostly instinct and that the individuals are not capable of
    doing anything outside their biologically assigned tasks.

    But I am not an entomologist so feel free to critique these views.

  18. Athena says:

    One problem is size — insects cannot exceed a certain size, which means that as individuals they will never have enough neurons for intelligence. One hive or nest, however, can be considered to be roughly equal to an intelligent organism. Ants, termites and honeybees use technology: they herd aphids, farm kohlrabi on leaves they cut, keep individuals as food reservoirs (the honey ants), engineer the gender and princess ratios of the colonies, etc. Whether they would be able to graduate to the kind of technology that would make a global civilization possible is an interesting question to ponder.

  19. Caliban says:

    We don’t even know what was the evolutionary driver behind the sudden expansion in human brainsize and culture. There are lots of just-so stories — ice ages, eating cooked meat, and so on — but without really knowing it is hard to speculate on what could, or could not, happen with insects.

    Of course, one can always speculate in an sf story…

  20. Athena says:

    Very true! But our cousins use concrete technology (all the way back to rhesus monkeys), which was one focus of Larry’s question. What’s interesting is that some species scattered all across the evolutionary ladder use some technology, and those that do are individually or collectively intelligent, from ants to ravens to elephants. And, of course, you can have a complex civilization with absolutely minimal technology. Food for thought! (pun intended)

  21. CW says:

    “if the ship lost its queen, it might well degenerate into the starving, milling horde that we see at the start of the film.” They did, in fact, say that the upper caste(s) had all died. (This was presumably from the disease which was pandemic on the ship when it arrived.) I am also a bit unsure where you got the idea that the prawns are all male. I just assumed that if they had two sexes then they weren’t particularly dimorphic. While the film did have some huge holes (DNA, really?) those didn’t seem to be among them.

    My SO also turned to me in the theatre and whispered “royal jelly” but, sadly, no.

  22. Athena says:

    They all sounded exactly the same in terms of voice pitch — and the only developed relationship is between two persons who call each other “father” and “son” in their own tongue. I’d be fine with no gender polymorphism, with more than two genders, with several castes, etc. It would be novel and interesting if “Johnson” showed non-male signifiers for a change, which would make sense for all kinds of reasons: s/he/it is uppercaste (a scientist), has an offspring, is reluctant to fight until there’s no alternative. I agree that having the “magic everything” juice be royal jelly would have been the smart thing to do.

  23. Walden2 says:

    I wonder if DNA and variations thereof are the way to go for all organic creatures across the Universe? I mean, at the risk of seeming unimaginative, what else would make a good carrier of genetic information?

    I am talking about carbon-based biological beings here, not machines and not the silicon type from The Andromeda Strain.

  24. Athena says:

    Nucleic acids, both DNA and RNA, are tremendous transmission templates. Here’s a paragraph from my book on the subject:

    DNA can be read in different ways by the cell machinery to undergo un/folding (compaction into chromosomes), replication (generation of daughter copies during cell division), transcription (creation of the messenger RNA, which transports the information of the archive from the nucleus to the cytoplasm), splicing (excision of RNA sequences which code for regulatory elements but not for proteins), translation (transduction of the information within the RNA into the proteins, which are the structural and executive molecules within the cell). Imagine a single text that can be read in Russian, Chinese, Maori, Navajo and Swahili, and you have a simplified version of what goes on within the cell nucleus.

    Proteins might be a distant second-best in carbon-based systems. But we won’t know unless/until we find an independent second life sample.

  25. Walden2 says:

    At the risk of jumping the gun, James Cameron’s new SF film Avatar sounds like it has a very good female co-lead character (she saves the main male character, a disabled human whose mind is placed in the body of a member of her species) and there is potential for snatchmo here.

    But I must point out, what I have read about Avatar sounds a lot like Dances With Wolves: A disabled soldier lives among a tribe of what he considers to be primitives only to find out they are much more complex and capable than he originally thought and essentially becomes one of them.

    Not that I have anything against Dances With Wolves, I just wanted to point out this plot similarity. It has to be better than the tripe we were given so far this summer (which may not be saying much), with the possible exception of 9, which I have not seen yet.

  26. Athena says:

    On the other hand, Avatar raised a storm of its own because Cameron cast exclusively white actors whereas the originals are clearly Asian (the cultures have distinct Korean and Inuit echoes). They did the same thing with the execrable SciFi rendition of Le Guin’s Earthsea. She disavowed it completely and all her reasons (given at her web site) are valid.

  27. Walden2 says:

    I think you are confusing Cameron’s Avatar with Avatar: The Last Airbender, based on the anime series. The latter one I have only seen the preview for and did not know about the controversy.

    The beings in Cameron’s Avatar are alien humanoids and should not be related to any race on Earth, but I am sure there are correlations. The film does look awfully pretty in the preview, so I am curious to see it.

  28. Athena says:

    You’re right — for some reason I had conflated the two. Cameron’s Avatar sounds a bit like Joan Slonczewski’s The Door into Ocean. And I can see your point about aliens (especially female ones) “educating” a male imperialist who happens to be receptive. Come to think of it, the closest analogy is to Terrence Malick’s The New World.

  29. Caliban says:

    I believe James Cameron himself has described Avatar as an SF “Dances with Wolves.”

  30. Suzy says:

    @ I wonder if DNA and variations thereof are the way to go for all organic creatures across the Universe? I mean, at the risk of seeming unimaginative, what else would make a good carrier of genetic information?

    Unfamiliar Life“, NASA Astrobiology Institute

  31. Athena says:

    There has been a lot of experimental progress since that report came out in 2002, but the general principles it outlines have stood firm for a long time (the primacy of carbon, water and polar polymers).

    Incidentally, the review of District 9 by David Schwartz in Strange Horizons agrees with my take. Good to know I don’t live in an entirely parallel universe, after all.

  32. Walden2 says:

    Schwartz’s comment on the District 9 government officials wanting to take the Prawns’ superior technology for their own military purposes as an SF cliche (think The Company in the Alien series) may be so, but it is also something that would very likely happen if just about any government on this planet came across advanced alien technology.

    Which makes me think that all those stories of crashed alien craft captured by the military like Roswell in 1947 prove that such events are but myths. Otherwise we probably would have seen some government with a superior weapon or some amazing new energy source by now (or have been wiped out). Or maybe they did get some alien tech that way but have no idea how to use it.

  33. Athena says:

    It’s unlikely that a radically advanced technology could be used easily, even if it were understood by reverse-engineering. Hell, even ancient technology is hard to recreate! Also, we understand the brain (at some, not all, scales) very well. But contrary to the tranhumanists’ fond fantasies of uploading, we are very far from being able to simulate it, let alone replicate it.

  34. Walden2 says:

    Yes but you know the military would try anyway.

    Maybe the sign we shall receive that they do/did have alien technology is when a rapidly expanding ball of light appears over Nevada….

  35. Athena says:

    “I wonder, what does this gizmo do?”

    *pull, twist, push*


  36. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    *shuffles in, late to the party*

    My males saw this film a few weeks ago and seemed to enjoy it thoroughly, especially the Youth (13), but I think there was a great deal of general male bonding and zombie fic surrogate/splatter film appreciation factor involved. I opted out of the invite. I’m at a point in my life where I pick and chose my gore judiciously (it damn well better be earned and not gratuitous).

    I would think that being an actual scientist may have the unfortunate fringe benefit of making the vast majority of Hollywood SF completely untenable, so you have my sympathy there.

    FYI, I had the exact same reaction to The Fountain. IMO a wash of Wlmart emo styling and Western WTF Buddhist pastiche that made me eject the DVD a half hour into the movie, drive back to the rental store and demand my money back.

  37. Athena says:

    The splatter factor was definitely high — but what was worse was the squandering of several interesting premises. Making an insectoid/reptilian alien simultaneously sympathetic and unique is always an interesting exercise. They did a good job of it in the otherwise mediocre Enemy Mine. Here they dropped the ball by essentially making them humans with exoskeletons.

    I don’t mind taking leaps in logic, as long as it’s internally consistent and sustained. In this case, I was prepared to accept the black goo as royal jelly (as Calvin suggested), but not as a magic wand that does whatever you want it to do as the plot contortions demand.

  38. Walden2 says:

    Nigerian officials: ‘District 9’ not welcome here
    Sept. 19, 2009, 9:29 AM EST
    ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — One of the summer’s biggest blockbusters — a sci-fi morality tale about aliens and apartheid — is not welcome in Nigeria because of its portrayal of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals, Nigeria’s information minister said Saturday.

    Information Minister Dora Akunyili has asked movie houses in the capital of Abuja to stop screening “District 9” because the South Africa-based sci-fi movie about aliens and discrimination makes Nigerians look bad.

    “We have directed that they should stop public screening of the film,” she said. “We are not happy about it because it portrays Nigeria in bad light.”

    Full article here:

  39. Athena says:

    The writer Nnedi Okorafor broached this issue as well in her blog.

  40. Walden2 says:

    And in Transformers 2, two of the alien robots known as the Twins were blatant racial stereotypes which the makers of T2 tried desperately to put the blame for this on everyone else.

    Hollywood does realize this is the year 2009 and not 1909, right? They do know that the President of the United States happens to be African-American, as is the new Administrator of NASA, who also happens to be a former astronaut, right? Well, they probably don’t know the NASA one.

  41. Walden2 says:

    How District 9 Should Have Ended:

    I remember thinking that indeed if the main alien came back, he would not be alone for the reasons cited in the above clip.

  42. Athena says:

    That’s funny, well done and plausible, too — are they planning a sequel?

  43. Walden2 says:

    I honestly do not know. It is possible, though, the way they left it.

    District 9 never did reveal exactly why the aliens came to Earth or why they just stayed rather than take off – though there was a scene when humans first went aboard their ship that seemed to indicate those aboard were not the ones in charge and/or capable of doing much. Some even seemed ill/starving.

    And the ship was full of exotic advanced weaponry and genetically engineered items. I think it is safe to say they weren’t made for the fun of it. Or hauled across interstellar distances for no particular reason.

    If they do have a sequel, I fear it will turn into another conventional war like the one in Battle: LA, removing even the few redeeming social issues raised in the first film. Maybe a prequel, to learn more about the “Prawn” and why they came to Earth. As well as why they didn’t just leave or start bombing the humans for treating them so poorly.

  44. Athena says:

    I’d say they couldn’t have left a more obvious cliffhanger. The motivations, as you say, are murky at best. It looked more like the accidental landing of a disabled ship with serious casualties (particularly of the command crew). Finally, I share your fears about the nature of the sequel.