To our mind there are only two possible contenders for the title of Best Sci-Fi Movie of 2009: District 9 or Avatar . . .

Sure, as any Arthur C. Clarke junkie will tell you, Moon is probably the only “real” science fiction movie of the year, but Duncan Jones’ unexpected gem of a film is too cerebral and cold in many ways – a movie which is easy to admire, but difficult to outright like.

And okay, J.J. Abrams’ imaginative big screen Star Trek revamp was the sort of energetic adventure that one hopes all blockbusters will be. But we’re too much of anal trekkies to truly dig all the changes Abrams made to Trek. After all, this Star Trek is more like Star Wars than anything else and we missed the focus on characterization and story too much.

So that leaves Avatar and District 9 . . .

Both movies have more in common than one might expect. Both are “Message” movies in which humans – and not aliens – are the jerks.

Avatar teaches us that it is, er, wrong to blow up primitive blue-skinned aliens’ holy trees whilst District 9 shows us that it is wrong to herd alien refugees into concentration camps and then call them names (“prawns”) and try to steal their advanced weapons technology. Both feature special effects by Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based WETA outfit, which has long ago stolen the shine from George Lucas’ ILM it seems.

But that’s where the similarities however end.

Avatar cost a whopping $237 million to make and $150 million to market. It is a 55-year-old Hollywood veteran director’s triumphant return to the limelight after having made the most commercially successful film of all time (Titanic) more than a decade ago. That is not to mention huge sci-fi action blockbusters such as Aliens and the first two Terminator movies.

Clocking in at 162 minutes Avatar is a behemoth of a movie event ready to squash anything in its path.

"When last did any James Cameron movie clock in at under two hours?"

District 9 is its direct opposite. It is the little movie that could. It clocks in at a brisk 112 minutes (when last did any Cameron movie clock in at under two hours?) and is directed by a first-time director who had yet to hit 30 at the time. Sure, it had the backing of everyone’s favorite Generation X film-maker Peter Jackson, but it was produced for a mere $30 million – probably what it cost Avatar to remove all the brown M&Ms from Sigourney Weaver’s candy bowls! (It went on to make $37 million in its U.S. opening weekend alone.)

So Avatar vs. District 9? Which one deserves our coveted “Sci-Fi Movie of the Year” prize?

Why . . . District 9 of course. And not just because we happen to be South African or always happen to favor the underdog.

No, because, as much as we enjoyed Avatar, we liked District 9 better because it is edgier and simply takes more risks narrative-wise. Who would have thought of making a nerdy Apartheid apparatchik (Sharlto Copley) the flawed hero of their movie? Or making your down-trodden alien “prawns” somewhat less noble than Cameron’s New Age “savages”? How District 9 actually manages to make us sympathetic to the sort of alien creatures which would have been the “monsters” in any other alien flick under normal circumstances is one of the great success stories of the year.

District 9 is, we believe, grittier and tougher. It may only have had the budget for one mecha suit, but that mecha suit looks a lot more real than the dozens of videogame equivalents in Avatar. And it was a whole lot more exciting and thrilling as well.

Just imagine what Neil Blomkamp will accomplish with a $200 million plus budget one day!

And the worst? While there are probably a lot of bad low-budget made-for-TV dross out there (probably all screened on syfy), our main contender for Worst Sci-Fi Movie of 2009 is Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen - an overlong and dull remake of the first movie.

Reasons why I might be prejudiced:

  • James Cameron threatened us with legal action once. (True story.)
  • We met Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley once and they are both swell guys.
  • That female alien in Avatar reminds me of an ex-girlfriend. No, really!

(District 9 is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray.)



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