Tag Archives: District 9

The Question Of So What

A professor who I had, who I didn’t really like, once told me that I could probably connect any variety of works. But that didn’t necessarily mean I had an essay. Another professor said that you know you’re paper’s successfully if there’s a point that could be proven wrong. Most succinctly, when I presented an idea for a paper to her, yet another professor responded with “So [beep]ing what, Josh; so [beep]ing what?”

Which, y’know, is a really good question. I can talk a bunch about how Madame Bovary’s titular protagonist wants a life akin to what would be known as the melodramatic genre, but where’s the point? That’s what I had to figure out if I wanted to write a legitimately good essay. Well, stories are a lot like that too. You can have a plot and all that, even be perfectly plotted and so on, but so what? A story’s gotta have a point.

This is the big thing with action movies. On the one hand, we have Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road; arguably two of the best proper action movies, well, ever. Both of these movies have clear themes, which both amount to the ability of anyone to step up and be a hero, regardless of profession and gender, respectively. Look at the massive reaction to both movies, Die Hard remains a staple nearly three decades after it came out and is referenced constantly. Time will tell if Fury Road has the same staying power, but it’s sure looking that way.

And why do these films stick? Because the points made them matter. Look at The Expendables, it’s good dumb fun, but the only real point to it is that it’s really fun to see ‘80s action heroes on screen together. It’s pure mindless fun, and there’s certainly a time and a place for that (The Expendables sits proudly on my shelf), but I doubt most people will really care in a few years. Or take a look at Expendables 3, which dispatched with the famous cast in favor of younger ones; it was still mildly fun, but tried to be something it wasn’t (a movie about the old becoming to old and having to hand the baton over, but not give them the proverbial sins-of-their-fathers instead of, y’know, watching action heroes do action hero stuff).

It’s science fiction that rides on this a lot. Star Wars has the good old anyone can save the world theme driving it (along with a very clear good wins thing). Godzilla has a lot to say about nuclear weapons and is at its best when it uses its kaiju as a metaphor. Or, at the very least, most memorable.

Neill Blomkamp’s filmography may be a good example in and of itself. District 9 is plainly an allegory for Apartheid that has us sympathizing with someone who’s an obstinate racist who’s forced to confront the other on a personal level. It works so well because it’s not content to present institutionalized racism in another guise, it actually says something about it. Elysium, on the other hand, says very clearly that a stratified healthcare system has issues and… well, that’s about it. It amounts to commentary saying nothing, which you can kinda maybe afford in a weekly blog, but not so much in formal papers and films.

Oh, and for the record, the importance of interpreting Madame Bovary as Emma wishing to enact melodrama is that it paints her as a quixotic figure actively escaping blame for her own failings.

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It’s Topical!

Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.

In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.

Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.

The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.

It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.

Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.

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Genre as Literature

I love science fiction. I’ve said that before on this blog, and I’ll say it again. I like spaceships. I like a world that’s a little more than ours. But when it comes to literary value science fiction almost always gets written off as being science fiction. Fantasy gets the same treatment. Why? Because it’s genre. Here’s the thing, though: science fiction can be as literary as it can be pulpy. Just like any other genre.

First off, let’s look up what exactly literary means. Wikipedia sources Joyce Saricks and defines literary fiction as “serious,” “critically acclaimed,” and “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Most interestingly, the term ‘literary’ fell into common usage in the 60’s. Why? To differentiate ‘serious’ fiction from genre. Which doesn’t make sense.

For example, look at The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. The former (published in 1969) deals with questions of gender and politics as well as being an outsider. There are layers and layers of this in The Left Hand of Darkness; some of it implicit and others not quite clear until after later thought. The Dispossessed (published 1974), on the other hand, looks at anarchy vs capitalism, individualism vs collectivism, and the tension when a person from one worldview visits a world where the opposite is practiced. So far, these seem to be pretty universal — and topical — themes. Both books are also extremely serious and have both been critically acclaimed (they won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, two annual science fiction accolades). So far this sounds very literary to me.

What about Ender’s Game; does Orson Scott Card’s novel fall under Saricks’ definition of literary? First glance would imply not; after all it’s just about children saving the world from aliens. Only it’s not. Ender’s Game is, at it’s core, a novel about empathy. Throughout the book Ender struggles with the tension between hate and love. Can you still hate someone, even your tormenter, after you understand them completely? What happens if this capacity for empathy is used as a weapon? And what if you’re institutionally ostracized from everyone else into becoming a weapon? Here lies the focus of Ender’s Game, not in killing aliens (whether the upcoming film keeps these themes is another issue). Like LeGuin’s novels, Ender is also critically acclaimed and, arguably, quite serious.

We can easily apply this lens to cinema as well. Underneath its slick action sequences, Inception asks questions about the nature of filmmaking and reality. Would you stay in a world where things were perfect, even if it wasn’t real? District 9 explores similar themes to Ender, albeit with regards to racism. Moon questions the meaning of identity in ways normal literature cannot.

Granted, a lot of genre fiction can be crap. Pulp novels from the early 1900’s tend to lack any sort of depth (though they set a lot of genre conventions still observed today). But then, can’t ‘normal,’ ‘non-genre’ fiction be crap too? You can find crappy detective novels, crappy historical fiction, crappy adventures, crappy fanfiction, crappy thrillers, and, redundant as it sounds, crappy romance novels. Why is some of it crap? Because some of it is good; really good. Some might even be ‘literary.’

So why was a term like ‘paraliterature’ coined to differentiate popular or commercial fiction from consecrated ‘literature?’ Does having the presence of anything outside the realms of normalcy instantly damn a piece of fiction? Way I see it, there shouldn’t be a divide: genre can be literary. Video games can be literary, look at The Last of Us! Comics can be literary (Watchmen). The problem with setting up a hard and fast guideline about where the line between literature and genre/paraliterature is that, like it or not, some of what you’re trying to keep out will inevitably slip through the cracks. Even if a criteria is as subjective as ‘serious.’ The alternate would be completely arbitrary decision making which, frankly, is just plain stupid.

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Commercial and Literary

There’s an interesting divide that tends to come up when discussing literature of any sort in an academic setting. That is, the divide between the commercial and the literary. What’s this mean exactly? Apparently when it comes to fiction and stuff there’s the stuff for ‘the masses’ and then the stuff that’s more for only people who would really understand it.

It’s the difference between Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pacific Rim. The latter is a movie that’s geared for just about anyone, the former is a borderline experimental movie with a tenuous grasp on a story. Maybe it’s its experimental nature of maybe it’s because it seems like you have to really really get it to understand it, but Beasts of the Southern Wild has been met with awards and Oscar nominations and the like. Pacific Rim on the other hand has gotten fanboys but will, of course, be absent from any considerations of it being a truly ‘great’ film. Why? Because Beasts is literary and Pacific Rim is commercial.

This is where I feel that things get weird. How do we define what’s entertainment and what’s art? On which side of the divide does a movie like Black Swan land? Or District 9? District 9 tackles the issues of race and prejudice with all the gusto of Invictus only masked in the slick veneer of excellent science fiction. Sure, District 9 was nominated, but there was little buzz afterwards (especially in comparison to The Hurt Locker). It was relegated to being ‘good science-fiction’ rather than a good movie. Because it’s got aliens and spaceships.

My problem with all this is that it’s such an arbitrary distinction. Maybe it’s because true art is incomprehensible, or maybe some people just like the ability to be snobs. Way I see it, literature is literature. The best way to judge something is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve (for example, Pacific Rim told a phenomenal story about canceling the apocalypse; Hereafter failed to provide a half-interesting look at life and death). Even then, it’s unfair to say one film is better than another simply because it’s more arty, more literary than another. It’s that weird thing in the library where you have the fiction section here, but the literature section over there. Of course, that’s all genre; some fiction gets written off completely because it’s in a different medium.

Ah, video games. Not unlike science-fiction or movies about giant robots, video games as a whole are written off by most people by virtue of them being entertainment for kids. Never mind that there exists games like Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, or The Last of Us; all games that push and blur the ideas of games and stories, playing with their form and the stories that can be told. I’ve written about The Last of Us a few times, and it bears repeating just how great a story and game it is. Yet it won’t be considered literature (thought by all means it should be). Why? Because it’s a video game; childish entertainment. Hence: commercial, not literary; low art not high.

I fully realize I’m championing a lost cause. I know Pacific Rim and The Last of Us will never be considered in the same league as A Tale of Two Cities. It just seems to be such an injustice that this distinction exists and that it’s such an arbitrary one.

All said, I suppose it’d mean we would have to compare Sharknado with The Avengers, so there’s that.

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Great Artists Steal

When explaining what make the Mac so good, Steve Jobs quoted Picasso saying “Good artists copy, great ones steal.” In an interesting twist of fate, that quote often gets attributed to Jobs now instead of Picasso (who may or may not have said it first). It’s a fun quote that definitely is the background for the Mac, it’s also very applicable to, y’know, art. And here that means everything.

Especially Neill Blomkamp’s filmography. Who, you ask? You might know him from the Halo: Landfall short and as the guy Peter Jackson chose to be the one to direct the Halo film. When plans for the Halo film fell through, Jackson instead gave Blomkamp the resources for District 9, an amazing piece of serious science-fiction that showed a few shades of the Halo games in its design and look. It’s subtle, but there’s some resemblance.

E
nter Elysium, the trailer for which dropped earlier this week. It’s Blomkamp’s next film and it looks just as cool as District 9. It too has some stolen design influence. Let’s look at the titular Elysium. It’s a ring-shaped megastructure, like the titular Halo (which wasn’t the first, but more on that later). So we have that look, but it doesn’t look just like a Halo but like Mass Effect’s Citadel as well (the spokes and the interior design). Artificial world inhabited mostly by the rich? Looks like the Citadel’s Presidium to me. It’s an almost uncanny resemblance. But it’s not bad. It’s a good idea, and Blomkamp’s not just copying the idea, but he’s stealing it and mixing it into his own work. He’s using it for a different story.

Halo’s a thief too, particularly from the film Aliens. How much? Halo’s Wikia has an entire article listing them. Not only are the marines’ armor very similar, but Sergeant Johnson is more or less Sergeant Apone. They even have some of the same lines. More than that, the setting of a ringworld is similar to the titular structure in Larry Niven’s  novel Ringworld. Halo took conventions, ideas, and designs (and a secondary character) and gave it a new life with a totally new story. Halo doesn’t feel or look derivative; that’s good stealing.

Uncharted is another culprit. Globetrotting treasure hunter who more often that not finds something with a supernatural power? Nathan Drake might as well be Indiana Jones without a whip. They’re often in similar predicaments: already up against crappy odds, everything goes wrong and they’ve gotta fumble —sorry, improvise— their way out. Nathan Drake is Indiana Jones set sixty years late. Yet the works as a whole are different enough. Uncharted’s supporting cast is more different and consistent than Indy’s and the plot and character arcs are very different. Uncharted takes what’s essentially the Indiana Jones mythos and reworks it for a more modern age. The end result is a fantastic video game that, for no small reason, has been called the best Indiana Jones video game.

The trick with stealing is to not take something wholesale and repeat it. As Steve Jobs said in the interview where he quoted Picasso: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then try to bring those things to what you’re doing.” Just copying something isn’t enough, you have to blend it in to what you’re making. Look at Dungeons & Dragons. Much of the setting is taken from JRR Tolkien’s work; you’ve got Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs (all of which had to be renamed in later editions). But Gygax and Arneson gave the world its own spirit, mixing in influences from other worlds as well. Super 8, Mass Effect, The Secret of Monkey Island; everyone steals from everyone else. The thing is to make it new, to make it work, to make it yours. Don’t copy; steal.

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Why Science Fiction Is Not A Genre

Walk into any book store and you’ll find them sorted into categories. You’ve got your Fiction, Children’s, Military History, Home and Garden, Romance, Young Adult, the odd shelf titled ‘Young Adult Paranormal Romance’, and, of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s fairly obvious where books go, works of Fiction goes in fiction, kids’ books go in Children’s, non-fiction goes with its topic, and so on.

Now, a work of fiction, whether it’s set in 1950’s New York City, medieval England, or present day Rio De Janeiro, is classified as Fiction. But add a spaceship or another planet and it’s suddenly Science Fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Space Opera or a gritty post-apocalyptic war, they all go on the same shelf. Wanna add an elf to your modern day crime drama? Same problem. Fantasy is fantasy, no matter the subject matter.

Why’s this the case? Dracula features a vampire and yet it’s put in Fiction. Animal Farm has talking animals that run a farm and it’s in Fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a weird dystopian novel with tropes straight out of science-fiction but it gets classified along with ‘proper literature’.

I realize my examples up there are all works that have been accepted as classics due to literary significance. So what about The Lord of The Rings? It’s got immense literary significance (reinvented the conventions associated with fantasy) and a truly epic plot with universal themes transcending its own story. So it gets put on the Fantasy shelf, and rightly so, because its setting is the archetypical fantasy world. Yet it’ll never be formally classified as ‘proper literature’.

The same idea extends to film. Super 8 is a movie about a bunch of kids making a movie. Throughout the plot they solidify their relationships with parents and each other; it’s about growing up. There’s also an alien in there, but it’s a plot device, not the point. But there’s an alien so it’s science fiction. Monsters has aliens too but it’s more like Lost in Translation than War of the Worlds. Once again, the titular monsters are a plot device, they exist to move the protagonists’ and the plot along. They’re not antagonists or even characters in the least. You could replace them with another trope and the plot would still work just as fine.
But because it’s an alien, it’s science fiction and thus not eligible for any ‘real’ awards. Super 8 and Monsters weren’t even considered for an Oscar because they’re science fiction and, ergo, not art.

My point is: the use of certain tropes doesn’t disqualify a work from being art. District 9 deconstructed much of what was accepted of a typical alien inversion. It was different and asked question normally never asked. Ender’s Game took the idea of the young hero and took it apart, adding the grief and trauma one would expect from such an event. They got their accolades from the science fiction community but beyond that, not much at all. Timothy’s Zahn’s work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe justified the movies and codified the universe. But because it could be written off as glorified Star Wars fan-fiction, no one outside the Star Wars fandom gives a crap.

When it comes down to it, science fiction is a setting not a genre. Genres are romances and comedies, tragedies and dramas. A setting is a spaceship or downtown Chicago. The only real difference between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction is setting. You have humorous science fiction (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), character focused drama (Firefly), and sweeping adventures of pure romance (Star Wars, natch). There are post-apocalyptic adventures and galactic tragedies. To lump all of them together under one category due to similar setting would be like categorizing a Jeffery Archer book, The Great Gatsby, and The Bourne Identity under the same genre because they’re all set in the 20th Century. A story having binary suns should not detract from its merit as a work of fiction. If it still engages and it still carries its themes then it’s literature all the same, right?

In any case, I still like science fiction. I like space. I like adventure.
And I’m willing to accept the stigma of being a science fiction fan if it means I get spaceships.

Writer’s Note: Granted, science fiction and fantasy have more than their share of crap which unfortunately stereotypes the ‘genre’ as a whole. But within all that there are some brilliant gems. And shine they do.

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