…or the beginning of the end, anyway.

Last night I rented District 9 and watched it after my wife went to bed. Bobbe has essentially zero tolerance for SF in any form, and in any case she was using the machine for chick flicks.

I don’t, as a rule, like “science fiction” movies, largely because I always want to put the phrase in scare quotes. Modern SF has ways of handling the tropes and plot holes that movie makers haven’t developed yet, and the result is that movie SF is more like “Golden Age” scientifiction, that is, from the Thirties through the early Fifties, than it is like the modern stuff. This one is a good example.

The plot holes — more like gaping lacunae — deserve a brief mention. At the top of that list: Where is everybody? It doesn’t matter that the setting is South Africa. A situation like that would have American, British, Chinese, Dubaian, Ecuadorian, French, German … investigators infesting the scene. Then there’s the magic: alien DNA “converting” a human, the stuff that doesn’t work for humans but does for aliens, the few ounces of “fluid” enabling a starship the size of Perth Amboy, NJ to “go home”. All of these are typical of SF movies, and typical of why I generally don’t like SF movies. None of them were what struck me, especially. What did was —

District 9 could not have been made in the United States.

It’s got nothing, or very little, to do with the setting or the characters’ accents. If Darryl Zanuck had wanted Johannesburg for a movie set, he would have built one. Central Casting could come up with an endless supply of Southern Hemispherian accents, importing them as necessary. What makes the movie impossible for Americans are socio-cultural factors that would have passed without comment as recently as two decades ago, and which serve as constraints that severely limit the kind of movie Hollywood can and will make today.

Number One: The absence of Government as a significant player. There are very few, if any, references to even policemen in the movie, the Army doesn’t show up, and I didn’t pay enough attention to know if Government bureaucrats even have a look-in on the decisions made; in any case, they were insignificant enough to be unnoticeable. A Hollywood movie would literally revolve around Government and Government agents, all of whom would be doing their very best 21st Century Sergeant Friday schtick. Private entities of any sort would be as conspicuous by their absence as Government is in Jackson’s film.

Number Two: Pervasive use of denigratory characterizations. The aliens are consistently referred to as “prawns” (or “prauns”, correct South African usage), even to their faces. A Hollywood movie would have to be politically correct on this point — there would be handwaving to the effect that their own term for themselves is XXXX, and anyone not using it would be something between chided and forcefully read out for it, the latter if they ever uttered “prawn” in that connection.

Number three: Black people depicted as unregenerate villains. This is actually the first thing I noticed. Do please note that not all the blacks depicted are villains, but some of them are, and they are shown as just as bad as any of the other villains. This would simply be impossible in Hollywood today. All the blacks would have to be good guys, and it’s likely that the protagonist would be black — it would be considered “edgy”.

Number Four: The victims aren’t shown as entirely angelic. Prawns are shown doing robbery and/or theft, and not strictly from a “victim of oppression lashing out” point of view, either. They’re corrupt (prostitution, victimizing one another), sometimes cruel (providing their own young for the cockfight-analogue), and generally sullen and uncooperative when a modicum of going along to get along would have made conditions better for them and everyone else. People, in other words. What’s especially interesting is that Jackson didn’t see the need to have one of the main characters emoting on the “victim of oppression” theme. It would’ve made the movie maudlin, but Hollywood couldn’t have resisted.

Number Five: The Corporation isn’t depicted as entirely blackhearted. Its security forces are, and are in fact one of the two main villains (the other being the Nigerians), but the executives are depicted as at worst uncaring, and most of them are shown as trying to make something work rather than being deliberately cruel. The protagonist himself is a Corporate executive, and starts out in the “try to make it work” camp, only later changing his attitude in response to what he sees as being shafted. In a Hollywood movie it would be obligatory for every agent of MNU, down to the janitors, to be concentrating on engaging in cruelty to the aliens and searching mainly for a way to profit by such cruelty.

Number Six: There is no neat resolution. The ship disappears with a badly injured pilot at the controls, the prawns end up in another shantytown worse if anything than where they started, and the protagonist sifts garbage while waiting for the ship to come back. This has been a violation of Hollywood protocol since long before political correctness took hold.

There are other, more minor factors, but those’ll do to go with. Note that all of them make the movie better — cardboard Corporate villains duking it out with maudlin, entirely virtuous aliens would have had to turn out as a simple shootout, which would lose almost all the subtlety of District 9‘s plot; the use of casual gookspeak is realistic, as we all know, but Hollywood would’ve done boring PC; and the Nigerian villains would have to have been lily-white and preferably wearing Nazi uniforms, which would not only be stupidly unrealistic, it would lose the overall squalor that makes the “look” of the movie what it is.

Bottom line: it’s a good movie — not even approaching perfect, but good — that could not have been made, in that form or anything resembling that form, by Hollywood today. Previous competitors to Hollywood either have folded from lack of capital (British film and TV) or restrict themselves to local or “ethnic” themes (most French, all of Bollywood). The movies such competitors have made have either been formulaic, “little” in the sense of not having wide appeal outside the ethnic milieu, or just flat bad. District 9 is none of the above.

Special effects, not just rubber suits for characters and zap guns but the provision of buildings and other infrastructure, have been expensive since the movie business began. Even a detective story set in contemporary conditions has to have backgrounds, buildings, cars, etc. etc. ad nauseum, all of which was best provided by setting up capital assets, the studios, and using them to provide sets and support “second unit” production on location. That has always gone double for science fiction and even historical fiction — it’s not much easier to provide a 14th Century castle than it is a starship, for instance. The availability of such capital assets has always given Hollywood a decisive advantage.

But if computer special effects combined with “location” shooting can eliminate that advantage — and, based on this movie, they can — the products will compete only on story and production values, and if Hollywood continues to restrict itself to such a small subset of the available stories and social arrangements, there are sure to be more Peter Jacksons anxious to take up the slack and count the profits. District 9 probably isn’t the end of Hollywood, but it’s the beginning of the end unless something happens, and soon.