Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

So, it’s 2:45 am, and I am .. AWAKE... - primarily because I seem to have some spreading, itchy rash on my neck and arms: an ROU [rash of unidentified origin]. No accounting for it.

Beyond that – and in order to have something other than being itchy to think about – I am stewing over movies (films, for the cognoscenti). This was initiated by my stumbling across a firestorm on Rotten Tomatoes over a review of the movie I saw earlier tonight (or rather, yesterday), District 9. The controversy spilled over a bit to Roger Ebert’s site, where Ebert first posted in moderate defense of the reviewer at the center of the storm, only to recant after commenters gave him further food for thought.

The [apparently] offending critic is Armond White. His review infuriated a surprising number of Rotten Tomatoes and New York Press followers. I’m happy to say I was unable (okay, I didn’t try very hard) to read the comments on RT and only skimmed the 47 pages of comments at NYP. I did read the comments at Ebert’s site.

Now, honestly, I have no dog in this fight.

I thought White’s review seriously missed the mark, as it seemed to focus on the film’s metaphoric references to South African apartheid (director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp is a native South African). In his review, as I read it, White seems to be incensed that the film does not fully examine apartheid, but rather uses apartheid merely as a metaphor in the pursuit of a science fiction movie about prejudice and the twin human capacities for bias-camouflaged evil and boundary-crossing decency. The aliens are, by contrast a mix of not-too-bright ‘drones’ and some very smart, very gentle beings.

To those of us who enjoy sci-fi films, this is a relatively novel stance. Apart from Close Encounters and Alien Nation [followed by the television series Alien Nation ], few films depict extra-terrestrial visits to this planet in other than terms of invasion by evil, repulsive beings bent on the destruction or colonization of Earth and/or the annihilation or subjection of its human inhabitants. (I am not counting E.T Come Home, as I think of it more as a kids’ fantasy film than a sci-fi film.)

Even The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film about aliens coming to destroy us; that these aliens are in some ways admirable and have superficial good cause to eliminate humanity from the Earth is, ultimately, beside the point. It turns out, of course, that these alien hasty-generalizers do not comprehend the full range of human achievements and possibilities. Once they comprehend human capacities for goodness, love, and progress, they will back off – with serious warnings – and let us find our better selves. If Lot had bargained with one of these extra-terrestrials rather than his god, Sodom and Gomorrah might have been spared.

Indeed, how ever often the depiction of human frailty is affirmed in sci-fi films and television series, it inevitably turns out that our very humanness is a lesson to the extraterrestrials. They learn that we are passionate and have depths of feeling beyond theirs. They come to understand that, despite our limited powers of reason and many lapses into injustice, we have better natures – natures which, it often seems, they do not have, precisely because they are so perfectly, coldly rational or perfectly evil. And, all too often, they are instructed by us to discover their own more ‘humane’ inclinations.

One cannot help but recall, with a wince, the many occasions on the original Star Trek television show when Kirk’s powers of manly seduction melted the cold heart of some alien beauty. That Spock was constantly being dressed down for his lack of feelings by Scotty was a less squirm-producing but equally heavy-handed message.

Once in awhile on a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode the aliens would be proven superior to the humans, morally and or emotionally. But, as a rule, in sci-fi We are good and They are bad. So, District 9 is refreshing in at least that respect. It also has a clever plot that plays into the problems of prejudice and perspective, cool but not over-the-top special effects, and an interesting mockumentary framing.

It seems all of this was lost on Mr. White. But the furor over his critique of the film is not due entirely to this one review. Rather, it seems that Mr. White is a repeat offender among film critics: one who typically praises what others, including other critics, dismiss and aggressively pans what others laud. Most of the commenting about his District 9 review focuses on his standard style [harsh] and his pattern of contrariness (from the perspective of his readers). That he often denigrates other critics does not help his reputation.

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