Exploring the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology: Marx, machines, Gibson, and Shanghai.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moon and District 9

SF Cinema Enjoyments and Kritik: Moon and District 9

This kritik opens with enjoyment because some of my strongest responses to Duncan Jones’s Moon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 were the variety of enjoyment rarely derived from a trip to the cinema these days, much less from films categorized as Science Fiction. And, to differentiate a bit within the category of enjoyment, I experienced Moon through deep absorption, like a smoldering ecstasy in contrast to the always partially self-conscious enjoyment of the overtly allegorical register of District 9. Put another way, while sitting and watching Moon, I was caught up in its rich textures of the visual, the narrative, the character(s), and audio including silences. Watching District 9 I was frequently aware of watching myself watching the film, enjoying myself enjoying it. I do not necessarily favor one of these enjoy-modes over the other, and in a climate of SF cinema seeming increasingly constituted by remakes, reboots, and the exploitation of toy franchises, both of these films recalled for me some of the enthralling first cinema viewing of Blade Runner.

Moving to specifics, I saw both films in the same week, watching Moon several days before District 9, so I begin with the former. The previews attached to any film reveal something about how the picture is embedded in the structures of money and marketing: the industry. Preceding Jones’s feature were previews for (500) Days of Summer and The Cove among others. These created a dialectical atmosphere of enjoyment and earnest political positioning, but with the former making avant-garde film technique part of the romantic comedy genre and perhaps more available to a larger audience (personally I don’t consider this cooptation, though some will) and the latter making the otherwise highly off-putting eco-theme delectable by making it detective/spy thriller genre documentary. Thus, when Moon arrived on the screen, I was already in mind of radical genre work, and Jones’s film achieved a provocative balance of meeting certain generic expectations while reshaping others.

As to the eco-theme, I appreciate the way Moon employs it to establish the world-setting of the film. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film opens with a question: Where are we now? And where we are is in part described as a world in which ecology is a central social concern, to the point that it is a central corporate concern as well. Not unlike Quantum of Solace, Jones’s film incorporates the eco-theme through criminals who are or who circulate among the corporate world devising new modes of exploitation in the name of “being green,” what Slavoj Zizek claims is becoming the new dogma off limits to questions of our era [see Zizek on this in Astra Taylor’s film, Examined Life]. After that, no more over references to eco in the film. I endorse Jones’s approach in this: sometimes a drop of eco can saturate the rest of the film to make it homeopathic rather than an anti-biotic with harsh side-effects. After all, this opening establishes the world-setting and thus the drama of the film within the context of ecology on Earth, something perhaps all the more potent because it takes place primarily off-world. A fresh reprieve from the blundering eco attempt of a film like the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which every time the humans try to argue with Klaatu for a second chance their total failure at rhetoric and reasoning are the most revealing aspects of the film [though I was pleased to see the future of the human race on Earth negotiated in Chinese at McDonalds!]. That said, I don’t recall how that opening broadcast is situated within the diegetic world of the film, nor the conclusion for that matter. They feel disjointed, and I would endorse even more the situating/framing of the narrative if these were more enmeshed into the narrative itself. Otherwise, they take on a tacked-on quality and hence a distracting effect. Still, these narrative frames are only part of the film, and there’s much more to be remarked upon the gorgeous narrative within.

Switching to District 9, the previews were for Final Destination and I cannot even recall the titles of the other films promoted—not a good sign for those who made the trailers if not the films themselves. While Moon came after a dialectical and intellectual build-up, District 9 seemed to follow an approach of lowering the bar so that the audience might be overawed by the movie in contrast to the other future fare on offer, and this wasn’t my 35-year old response as the college-student aged audience majority scoffed audibly at the previews. However, this is not to disparage Blomkamp’s film so much as to critique the way it was presented, not a director-controlled situation I presume. What I found provocative about D9 was its alternative approach to relating its fictional world to the socio-historical world in which such a film is possible. While there is a CLEAR relationship to South Africa’s history of apartheid, the relationship is not itself clear, or at least not uncomplicated. Neither a mirror nor a simple displacement of races or other categorizations of humans is at work here. Thus, the point is not to approach this film in order to reverse-engineer decode the unity or consistency it “hides” by shifting a historical intra-human matter to a human-alien one. Rather, the film incorporates multi-national capital, family drama, encounters with the alien other—human and non-human, and the weapon industry. In other words, the film is about apartheid but also about the world in which apartheid is possible as well as the world today that can reflect upon apartheid and what it might reveal about our own “post-apartheid” world, whether that be the purportedly “post-racial” America or elsewhere. So, like Blade Runner and a few other exceptional films, District 9 is pushing at the boundaries of what SF allegory might mean and how it might work.

As a final critical consideration, these films can be juxtaposed for their narrative use of the individual and the collective or the social. An initial response to Moon might be to chastise its emphasis on the individual drama, as if apart from social concerns. That might be valid if the film were a mere psychological exploration of the individual in prolonged space isolation, but that’s not what the film is or does. It only gestures that way in order to punctuate the surprising discovery. Thus, in yet another way, Jones thwarts an expectation based on a familiar genre, and in a way that is closely tied to the film’s complication of what it means to be human, including what it might mean to be human in an era of cloning: one of my favorite aspects of the film is the hospitality displayed by Sam—an openness to the most frightening other of all, an other who is you. And in this sense, I feel D9 is the more reactionary of the two films since it seems to call up the individual and his love relationship as the final transcendent image. This does not undo all the provocative and progressive work of the human-alien cooperation, but it does hint that the “hospitality” Wikus shows to the “prawns” is based very much in the desire for a return to status quo.