This weekend, The Gryphon and I saw the movie District 9, and I also started watching the TV series Battlestar Galactica. Both of them deal with the concept of "the other," and in the course of doing so, offer political and social commentary.
District 9 tells the story of a spaceship that has become marooned on earth for some reason the humans cannot ascertain. The aliens, who are sickly and malnourished, are detained in a shantytown outside of Johannesburg in South Africa, known as District 9.
The movie was shot in an actual shantytown left over from Apartheid days, which is still occupied.
These aliens look very insectoid, although they are bipeds with a roughly human shape. They are treated as lesser beings and live in subsistence conditions. Their efforts to make due with a bad situation by, say, picking through trash for usable objects or scavenging for food, only confirm the population's beliefs that the aliens are second-class creatures.
However, as the movie progresses, we see more and more signs of what, for lack of a better term, I'll call humanity. It soon becomes clear that they are living this way only out of necessity, simply trying to survive.
Considering that the humans are able to fly helicopters up to the mothership, and to communicate with the aliens, having learned their language, you might wonder why somebody doesn't just talk to them and figure out what the aliens need to fix their ship and get going. There is one key reason: weapons. The aliens have very crude-looking but powerful weapons which can only be used by other aliens. The humans want to keep the aliens on the planet until they can figure out how to make this alien weaponry work, even though this means detaining a million aliens in deplorable conditions.
Enter the protagonist, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a very ordinary paper pusher for the multinational corporation which handles alien affairs. Due to pressure from the local citizenry, the corporation decides to relocate the aliens from their shantytown into a tent city further outside town, where citizens will not have to see them on a daily basis. Wikus, the son-in-law of the big cheese, is promoted to head of the relocation project.
In this role, Wikus is followed by a camera crew, documenting his efforts to convince the aliens to sign paperwork acknowledging that they are giving up their shabby homes and moving to a new camp. All the while, he puts up with everything from resistance to overzealous, trigger-happy enforcers from the corporation.
I won't tell you what happens to Wikus or where the plot takes him, only that by the end of the movie, he sees things in a vastly different way. I can almost guarantee the audience will, as well.
It was a very strong choice to set this movie in South Africa, because it reminds anyone born in the last 30 years that in our recent past, it was not aliens but, in fact, humans who were treated this way. Human beings who just happened to have more melanin in their skin. Yet, they were treated much the same as the aliens in this movie, kept separate in deplorable conditions.
As you watch this movie and think about it, how many times do we still, even today, regard people of other cultures, other religions, as being so alien they might as well be insectoid? Especially when we see the movie through the eyes of an everyman who is not a cruel person, who has no inherent prejudices and really does want to see justice prevail. Yet, even he is guilty of offenses, just because he follows the status quo.
Ultimately, the movie makes a passionate argument to speak out and to act in cases where you see injustice, regardless of what the rest of the world says. A valuable lesson, for sure.
The movie is incredibly well done on all levels: writing, acting, mise en scene, special effects. Believe it or not, the aliens are completely CGI but do not look like they are. Instead, you'll wonder how an actor managed to fit inside those suits. The cinema verite camerawork suits the story very well. It's an edge-of-your-seat movie, with something happening every moment. Even as they're setting up the situation, there is foreshadowing that feeds the viewer's curiosity. And while one party guest said she thought it was too intense to watch repeatedly, it is one of the few recent movies that I think would be worth viewing a second time.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
I've only just begun watching Battlestar Galactica, so I can't make an overall assessment yet of the series. So far, I've watched the original miniseries, which serves as a pilot for the series, as well as the first two episodes.
While I certainly can't fault my friends for failing to talk up this series since so many of them loved it I can say that I would have watched it sooner if I knew it was so good. I expected it to be a military shoot-em-up film, heavy on military strategy. That sort of movie or TV series makes my brain dry up and float away. Despite the name, however, this is a very different series, in part because it's a different sort of war.
Again, I would say that this series has some real-life analogies to our current geopolitical climate. This post-9/11 science fiction series borrows from our recent past. In the opening episodes, the citizenry consider themselves at peace, with the last major conflict 40 years ago, against robots created by the humans who then turned on them. It's such a peaceful time they're about to decommission one of their major battleships from that war, the Battlestar Galactica.
As the series begins, we meet members of the military brass, ordinary crew members, and a political detail headed by the education secretary, there to attend the ceremony. While this ceremony is taking place, the Cylons launch a surprise attack and decimate the planet, forcing the Galactica back into action, leading a ragtag convoy of refugee ships as they seek safety elsewhere.
Of course, what the humans don't know is that, in the 40-year interval since the last war, the Cylons developed a new breed of Cylon, indistinguishable from humans.
These opening episodes make haunting allusions to 9/11, from the surprise attack in a time of peace to the makeshift memorials of walls mounted with photos of the dead and missing. Such scenes are familiar from any modern disaster, from 9/11 to the Indonesian Christmas tsunami.
The military, used to fighting a conventional war against known enemies in clearly-defined combat roles, struggles to adjust to this new type of war. Meantime, we learn that at least one person aboard the battlestar is a Cylon sleeper agent, a Cylon who does not realize it. In this miniseries, unlike District 9, the "other" looks just like anyone else. This tends to render suspicious any action that is slightly unusual. Already, there are hints that such thinking might lead to paranoia and persecution of those viewed as a threat. Sound familiar?
It's too early to give this series a rating, but so far, I'm definitely intrigued. I'm sure there are many more surprises in store. I look forward to discovering them.
How you treat the "other" says a lot about who you are.