I had heard good things about one of the year's biggest sci-fi movies of 2009 and finally saw it this week. A bunch of aliens is oppressed by human corporate military forces who seek to move the weird-looking aliens from their home to another location. The special effects were amazing, like nothing I'd ever seen and the inventiveness of the filmmakers was endless. And after watching it, I was reminded of another film with a very similar plot that I'd seen last week, Avatar, which wasn't nearly as good. You see, I finally watched District 9 on Blu-Ray DVD.

I'd avoided District 9 because I'd heard it was awfully violent and figured I'd prefer to see it on home video. Yes, it was extremely bloody in ways I'd never seen in a movie but man, did it out-create Avatar. As my review here discussed, James Cameron's film portrays the security forces of a big mean corporation using advanced military technology to violently drive out the blue-skinned natives of a forested planet (sort of like the Imperial forces tried to do to the little Ewoks in Return of the Jedi with the same disastrous results.) But watching District 9 was the far richer cinematic experience.

In both films we have a private corporation seeking to oppress aliens. In District 9, the bug-like "prawns" are apparently refugees from some giant otherworldly transport ship that floats stalled over Johannesburg, South Africa. The thousands of aliens within were relocated to a slum outside the city and now, MNU (Multi-National United) the mega-corporation charged with removing the prawns are led by Wikus Van De Merwe, a nerdy bureaucrat who knows just how to smile patronizingly as he tells the shanty town occupants they must sign a form acknowledging they must move. When he's accidentally exposed to an alien fluid, he begins to slowly transform into a prawn and becomes wanted my MNU to be dissected for alien tissue that can be used to exploit the prawn's advanced technology. Wikus undergoes more than one kind of transformation as he is forced to see the huge injustice he's been a big part of.

The first part of the movie is shot partly in documentary style so that we follow the story as outsiders being introduced to the tender mercies of humans quite prepared to violently punish these repellent outsiders and many have recognized director Neill Blomkamp's referencing of South Africa's apartheid history in the plot. But every character in the film, so unlike Cameron's, seems fully fleshed out as characters rather than stereotypes. Avatar's Na Vi are standard issue noble savages. The prawn apparently have a class system and most of the ones in the ghetto are not only not noble, they are repulsive in their behavior. Nevertheless, we feel both the revulsion of the humans and the cruel victimization of the prawn.

Whereas Cameron has long been heralded as king of the world of special effects and action scenes, other than the beauty of the moon Pandora, almost everything in Avatar felt entirely conventional in staging and presentation as if the director hadn't had a new idea in 10 years. Blomcamp's vision is startlingly fresh and all the more intense and scary for it as the 30-year old former digital effects director uses his background to create some of the best interaction between human and "painted-in" digital aliens in film history. After an hour of Avatar, one pretty much gets used to the alien world and the effects don't feel as special. I never got used to the surprise and innovation flowing from District 9 and the drama of poor Wikus as he fights his transformation holds you till the end. Empty spectacle versus brilliant use of effects to undergird a gripping parable of new found empathy-there's no contest.

Posted by Alex Wainer.