Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Film critics all over the place have been raving about District 9, and the trailers and storyline behind the film really sounded and looked good, and thus I made some time last week and saw the film in a packed theater in Germantown, MD.

District 9Let me reveal a secret, not about the film itself, but a little secret code that us geeks who have always enjoyed science fiction, since childhood, through the demise, rebirth, re-demise and re-rebirths of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, etc. have devised since the mid 1960s.

This code lets true SF insiders know immediately who really knows what Science Fiction is all about, besides the usual drivel that Hollywood pumps out, with the occasional gem thrown in the mix, almost like a visual arts group show.

Whenever you read or listen to anyone writing or talking about science fiction, listen or read closely. If they say "SF" or "science fiction," then they are part of the brotherhood; if they say "sci-fi" then you immediately know that they're outsiders peeking in.

"Sci-fi" is politically incorrect and word suicide in the world of the genre's true aficionados and followers. Nerd code for "has no idea."

And what film critics all over have been raving about, is the interesting and (to them) unusual storyline in this "sci-fi film" about the tried and true "man meets alien" storyline.

The D9 storyline stands out not because SF hasn't got a rich and diverse set of ideas and novels about the subject, but because when dealing with aliens, Hollywood has repeatedly followed one road when giving us a movie about us meeting them. There are some exceptions, of course, but generally speaking... well you know what I mean.

District 9 will be the blockbuster of the summer season. This is by itself an unusual thing, since the movie has no stars in it, and was made by a 29-year-old South African director whom nobody ever heard of (Neill Blomkamp), and was filmed mostly in a garbage dump/landfill in that ghastly and ugly city that is Johannesburg.

The back story is that decades ago a massive alien ship appeared over Johannesburg and just sat there motionless. They didn't attack, or make contact, or anything. They just floated there, above the city. Once humans got curious enough, we broke into the ship and found a million starving aliens, apparently helpless and clueless.

First contact is not a pretty or as impressive as we expect it to be, and soon humans lose patience with the ravenous and violent aliens and segregate them into a ghetto outside Johannesburg which is called District 9.

As the present day storyline in the movie begins, a multinational corporation, seeking to profit from the alien war technology, assigns a geeky employee (Sharlton Copley, who does a spectacular job in the part, even though this was his first acting job, ever) the task to begin a massive re-location of the aliens to a refugee camp far from the city.

Geeks will be geeks, and my first issue with the movie storyline began as soon as I learned that the aliens had much more advanced technology that humans.

And yes, I do understand the interesting facets of the film addressing social issues through metaphor (although it is by far not the first time that SF has addressed social issues, often ahead of all other genres). The aliens are segregated, humans refer to them in a derogatory (racist?) manner as "prawns" because of their appearance, and everyone dislikes them, and they have no rights, etc.

But technology rules every time that two civilizations meet. In 1571, Don Juan de Austria led the Spanish Armada and ships from the Holy League against superior numbers from the Ottoman Empire. Outnumbered by almost 50 ships, Don Juan had superior technology and new tactics on his side, and the defeat of the Turks probably saved Europe from force conversion to Islam.

Just a handful of years later, in 1588, as an aging Armada approached England, it was English technology (better cannons, faster, smaller ships) and new tactics (run instead of fight, fireships) that saved the day for the British.

And it was technology that allowed a handful of Europeans to conquer much larger Native American empires, as Cortez in Mexico and Pisarro in South America did.

And it was technology and tactics that allowed the evil Nazi war machinery to sweep across Europe in the early years of WWII. Never mind the brave Polish horse cavalry charging against German tanks.

In D9, the aliens have ass-kicking war technology that only the aliens can operate, as the weapons are genetically matched to them. Humans can pull the trigger, but nothing happens.

So, how did we humans manage to corral a million technologically superior, often-violent and definitely ravenous aliens into a ghetto? The movie doesn't address this key point. We just fenced them all inside a nasty, ugly ghetto outside Johannesburg.

In the alien ghetto, Nigerians are depicted as evil profiteers who trade in alien weaponry for cat food, which apparently is a delicacy for the aliens. The Nigerians mistreat and insult, kill at random and even eat the aliens. Meanwhile the aliens just walk in and trade superior weaponry that only they can trigger, for canned cat food.

In a real life scenario: point, shoot, kill, take the canned food.

Makes my head hurt.

I'm sorry, but I am pedantic and this issue really blows the storyline for me.

Anyway, once we get past this, the main character goes to the alien ghetto to inform them that they are being relocated, runs into an alien scientist-type and his son, gets sprayed with some alien technology matter and things begin to change for him real fast.

It is an entertaining, fast paced movie full of great special effects and action. As such it is a good SF movie, but definitely not worth all the unusal accolades that it is receiving as a high brow, spectacularly intelligent, different "sci-fi movie."

You want intelligent, socially-relevant SF? Start making movies out of the stories by Harlan Ellison, Phillip Jose Farmer, etc.

By the way, at the end, the aliens do get moved, by then there are almost 3 million of them, and they now live in District 10.

Sequel en route.

Lee-Lange on In the Flesh II and thoughts on Cazón

The current show at Alexandria's Target Gallery is getting good critical attention. I reviewed it here, and Kevin Mellema reviewed it here.

And now Shauna Lee-Lange pops in with a new review here.

A nice thing to do this Sunday: go see this show at Target Gallery, then wander around the Torpedo Factory and get your own impression of the range of work being done there, and then walk up to La Tasca for some really good tapas (try the gambas al ajillo and their Buey al Jerez).

Speaking of Spanish tapas, I've noticed that my all time favorite tapa (Cazón) seems to have dissapperaed from Spanish restaurants in the Greater DC area.

I recently asked one the bartenders at Jaleo why Cazón was no longer on the menu and was told that it was removed because the owners were receiving some complaints about having shark on the menu.

Deep breathing...

I'm not going to get into a diatribe here about caving in to the squeaky wheel of possibly misinformed do-gooders (I can't figure out from some quick Googling if dogfish is on the endangered species), but, having lived in Andalucia, while Cazón is usually made with dogfish, a kind of shark, any solid-fleshed fish, such as monkfish, is also quite good. It's the marinating in garlic, olive oil and vinegar that gives the fish that really good flavor.

So if either monkfish or dogfish are endangered or possibly endangered, then switch to another abundant solid-fleshed fish and give me my Cazón back!

I'm going to cook some tonight. The Andalucian recipe is here.