Last year, in 2009, two major blockbuster films, the genuine, gritty “District 9” and the visually spectacular “Avatar”, were released with similar themes: the conflict of humans meeting aliens. In “District 9”, the Aliens are the unfortunate immigrants to a, all too recognizable, Johannesburg, forced to live in slums under cruel conditions. In “Avatar”, however, the humans invade a planet called “Pandora” and start a war against the aliens living there, the Navis. The “Avatar” story line is very much like another, more unknown film that came out in 2007, “Battle for Terra”. “Battle for Terra” is completely animated, CGI full length feature, while “Avatar” and “District 9” is partly live action (and acted) and a partly computer animated set piece. All these afore mentioned feature films ask the question: what would happen if the human’s existence collided with that of the outsiders? If this is the question posed which of these films gives us the most believable and consistent answer? And given the history of humans and the trajectory of incursions into others places, or just coming into contact with another, how do these films fare? The question then is, given these concerns, and looking how the aesthetics intersect with the questions, are these films good, or not good? Beware as this entry will feature spoilers from all three films.
“Battle for Terra”’s main character is the curious and adventurous Mala, who lives in a peaceful and idyllic little village on the planet Terra. One day, a strange object shows up in the sky and a mass kidnapping of the alien citizens, including Mala’s father, ensues. As Mala attempts to rescue her father, she encounters one of the invaders in the persona of a badly injured human named James. Deciding to help him to help facilitate finding her father, James, after his recovery in the care of Mala, promises to help her find her father.
The first great thing about this film is that the main protagonist of this film is a girl, and the alien of the film. Since Mala is the person you follow throughout the film, the viewer feels more close to the alien’s culture and gets to see their society through their eyes. In “Avatar”, the Navi’s culture is strictly seen through the human’s eyes, the human heroes, and becomes the human viewpoint exclusively.
The “avatar” narrative is an okay way to introduce the viewer to the alien, but still leaves a bit of distance to them. This also holds for the film “District 9”, whose lead role is also contained by a human protagonist. Also, in “Battle for Terra”, as opposed to the other films, Mala’s species is not overtly romanticized, as we see done so strongly in “Avatar” (though not in “District 9”). Mala’s species, as it turns out later in the film, have had countless wars and brutal battles between themselves, bringing their own culture and species to the brink of extinction. Their leaders, upon restoring peace, keep this past history of their race a secret from the general masses in order to avoid any more violence which their species may invoke on themselves. The Navis, however, don’t seem to have any dark past or present day conflicts at all. This makes “Avatars” aliens seem like a sweet dream instead of actual living creatures. Mala’s species in “Battle for Terra” feel more real; like humans, they can do great violence, but they can as well create a beautiful peaceful culture. The film, oddly enough, does suffer from the beauty and vibrancy of the animation in one way, however. Even in the midst of horrible things actions and implications of the story line and images, like the brutal battles between the humans and the aliens, the random and unfeeling kidnapping of individual, and Mala’s horrific discovery of the nonchalant torture (and death sentence) that the humans impose so casually on the captured aliens, the film still has a sublime beauty and complexity to its animated surface. This creates in the viewer an eerie feeling while watching the film. It is hard to know whether you as a viewer should be horrified or utterly amazed at what you’re viewing. “Battle for Terra” sends out, in a way, double signals. It wants to be cute, but gruesome as well. An appreciation of the lush surface and a repulsion to the terrible narrative just beneath. Very few films can pull this off. This almost does, but not quite.
As for “Avatar”, the visuals are also a problem. Granted it is important to show the viewer how beautiful Pandora is, otherwise the viewer wouldn’t feel dismayed when the humans begin their task of destroying its natural environment. But it even when the film focuses on the scientific and military complex the humans live within on Pandora, the films atmosphere remains lush and overtly attractive. The protagonist in “avatar” is the human Jake, a marine who gets to inhabit the artificially constructed body of a Navi and attempt to live amongst them in order to gather information for the military. This is an alright plot, but as stated before does leave quite a bit of distance from the humans to the aliens culture and individuality. “Avatars” Character and protagonist as embodied in Jake is neither as strong nor as interesting as Mala, or of the heroes of “District 9”.
The Navis have no flaws, which gives them no credibility. Most of the humans of “Avatar” often feel to the viewer just plain and simply mean-spirited without giving an adequate reason or back-story for this. It is recounted early in the narrative of “avatar” that planet Earth is on the verge of total collapse, but we are give no satisfactory description of how this may happen or what it may mean to the humans. In “Battle for Terra” it is made clear that the humans are homeless after destroying Earth and starting a series of wars with future colonies on Venus and Mars which ended in mutual destruction for all involved. This narrative fact makes the humans cruelty to the aliens understandable, but not justifiable. In “Avatar” it seems almost as if the invasion is done mostly due to spitefulness, though there is an aside to “unobtainium” , one of the worst puns ever foisted on cinema.
This being said, “Avatars” biggest plus, which I love, is its independent warrior women characters. Both the human, as well as the Navi females, in the narrative structure, stand up for what they think is important and don’t let the males impose their wills, or personas, to exclusively in this context. This holds even more so for the character persona of Mala in “Battle for Terra”! Of these three Mala is shown as technically able, resolutely brave, determinately humane, and intellectually adept.
“District 9” on the other hand couldn’t have been any more stronger and effective in its message. This film understands that if you’re attempting a cinematic narrative about brutality and unbelievable unkindness, you have to create a filmic landscape and storyline which is visually gritty and painful in the story which it plays out. “District 9” wants us to believe the tale it tells could be real, and cleverly uses mockumentary-like effects, including fake interviews, to get the viewer to identify the events of the film with everyday life. The aliens don’t look beautiful, but are so noble that it’s hard not sympathize with them. Wikus, a man that accidently must work with the alien Christopher, is also a more complex character than Jake. He’s ambitious and eager to do a good job, which unfortunately requires oppressing the “prawns” (Aliens). This makes him unlikeable at first, but as time passes in the narrative and Wikus discovers all the terrible things done to the Prawns, he slowly starts to feel empathy for them and their plight. However even in the midst of this awakening of humanity Wikus cannot shed his dark well of conservative values, the same values which have imprisoned the “visitors” to the half-life of the slums and total ostracism from humane contact.
The film also follows Christopher, a prawn who lives in the slums the aliens are forced into. The viewer gets to see how unpleasant the living conditions for the prawns are and what being prey to human’s “racism” means for anyone (having to live amongst and under gangsters and living with garbage as a source of food). The aliens of District 9 are hardly at all romanticized by the saga of the film, even if they are compared to the humans here and come out as more kind and, even, intelligent. These Aliens rarely use violence, even to defend themselves (but, one of the lines of the story which plays out, if you push them around long enough they will bring suffering upon their attackers). The brutality of humans is shown as a response of irrational fear of the Alien, and the other, generally. The Humans xenophobia, which is hard to understand but easily recognizable to us all, feels truthful.
And of course, at the last, about endings: “District 9” is also more ambiguous in its ending. “Battle for Terra” has a bit of a forced happy ending and “Avatar” a utopian happy ending. “District 9” however has neither.
Definitively “District 9” is the superior film about human’s mistreatment of Aliens out of these three films. It knows what it wants to do: shock us. And succeeds in devoting itself to this mission.
Yet “Battle for Terra” has its strong moments. But regretfully is a movie that is unknown, which I would guess is due to the cute look of the character animation while at the same time having a grandiosely sad story. “Avatar”, which came out only two years later than “BFT” has almost the exact problem, yet did not suffer this fate and is extremely famous and generally well received. So “Battle for Terra” got a bit of a shaft in my opinion. If you can find this film, check it out. Even if it may not be a great or good film, it’s still interesting.