Thursday, December 23, 2010

Distant Relatives: Metropolis and District 9

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.


They tell bird owners to avoid putting your new pet in one of those high hanging Tweety-bird cages.  See, if the bird spends most of his time positioned above you, he'll develop a sense of superiority and will be impossible to teach and train.  Just in case the overworld/underworld concept started to seem like a common and cliched metaphor, it doesn't hurt to remember that it's a fact of nature. Those who are above see themselves as greater than those who are below.  And if it transcends animal species here on Earth then why not throughout the universe?  Which is why it makes so much sense that the aliens of District 9 couldn't be allowed to live in their space ship towering high in the sky but had to be moved onto the ground and given the nickname "prawn" after an animal that mucks about far below us humans.  Metropolis classically uses the conceit and creates a reality where the workers live below the ground while the aristocracy lives in skyscrapers high above, and extends it to Biblical dimension, with workers being gobbled up in fantasy by the demon Moloch, rich people cavorting around overworld places called the "Eternal Gardens" and the central skyscraper the "New Tower of Babel."

Like much science fiction that comments on social justice issues, we're presented in both films with evil corporatedom.  In Metropolis, Joh Frederson is the founder and autocratic force behind the city.  In District 9 the wonderfully generically named Multinational United is the military company tasked with relocating the slum based aliens (because surely no government wants to do it).  In both cases, someone from deep within this corporate atmosphere will penetrate the "underworld" and come to an understanding, and in both cases it's a privileged son (or son-in-law).  At the front, Freder and Wikus van de Merwe seem like they couldn't be more different.  Frederson is a playboy and van de Merwe is a schlub (who hasn't even the decency to have been born into his luck) but both men are fated to bridge the gap between two very different worlds.  It's no surprise given their strength or weakness of personality that Freder ventures down into the unknown because of passion and cunning.  Van der Merwe goes because he's told.


Both District 9 and Metropolis are burdened with heroes that we, the audience, aren't likely to want to identify with.  Metropolis gets around this by making its protagonist display the heroism and moral fortitude that we'd all like to believe we'd have given his situation.  He acts out of love and then out of common decency.  Van der Merwe is a stooge and when he grows a conscience it's only in the most extreme of situations, when he is forced to literally live in the skin of the "prawns" and witness the inhumanity toward them.  Perhaps because in modern times we simply can't believe a man of business would become a moral champion without being dragged into it kicking or screaming.  Perhaps it's because audiences no longer identify with unapologetic heroes (even superheros these days are painted with serious amounts of pathos and self-doubt).  However, no one wants to identify with a racist.  District 9 director Blomkamp cleverly provides us with a tough road to tolerance, making his aliens disgusting, unsettling, and violent creatures.  Van der Merwe does eventually capture our sympathies because we see in him, not immediate heroism, but the capacity to learn and change.  Our standards for heroism have changed in eighty years, or just gotten more realistic.  And eventually, Van der Merwe too acts out of love.

The original bio-technology
 It's interesting that while both men are eventually compelled by the injustices they see, there is always that underlying compulsion to attain or re-attain the woman they love.  Whether that's selfishness or not - well neither film is exactly a lesson in Ayn Rand Objectivisim.   Then again, the lesson of Metropolis isn't exactly "Comrades Unite!" either, though the juxtaposition of the workers and aristocrats isn't far from the Soviet revolution silents of that same period.  Instead the message is "The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart," a somewhat muddled and sentimental cry toward empathy all around.  Not so for District 9.  While our "good guy" situation may be murky, there are certainly bad guys and they must be defeated, through destruction if necessary.  In Metropolis the only villain set for destruction is the evil scientist Rotwang.  Even Frederson gets inexplicably redeemed.  In the time between the two films, one-dimensional heroes have made way for one-dimensional villains.  This makes it easier when the good guys win, if they win.  Unfortunately in that same amount of time, that conclusion has gotten much less inevitable.


Metropolis ends on a pretty high note.  Foes are vanquished.  Love is founds.  Mutual respects are earned.  Societal breakdown is avoided.  At the end of District 9, what we're left with is hope.  We're presented with the possibility of an eventual happy ending.  When you think of the characters of District 9 in five or ten years, do you see a happy ending?  Chances are you haven't filled one in yet, and are hesitant to doing so.  This is because the filmmakers have us exactly where they want us.  For a movie influenced so strongly and apparently by the recent history of Apartheid in South Africa, it could never in good conscience end by the hands and the head meeting with the heart.  All is well.  Intolerance is defeated.  It has to present the struggle for equality as one with no end, just ongoing hope.  Curiously in this particularly pessimistic fable, the only real solution is the permanent separation of the human and alien class.  Metropolis certainly wasn't errant to suggest peaceful protest, but nearly a century later after war, corruption, holocaust and unending civil rights struggle, the idea may not play as well at the multiplex.  Even Fritz Lang eventually said "You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale."

Metropolis is indeed a fairy tale.  That's one of the major differences between the two films and indicative of how the science fiction genre has evolved.  Metropolis is a big intentionally artificial stylized production with expressionist sets, wild dream sequences and eventually the Whore of Babylon running about.  It's not set in our reality but is a parable. District 9 is presented in a semi-documentary style, heavy on realism, going to lengths to redefine our history in a way we'll accept.  It thrives on its believability. It's worth noting that the high-concept of District 9 propelled it to surprise independent film success, although the backing Peter Jackson didn't hurt, nor did the action movie finale (which is why one must wonder if the film promotes just revolution as a social philosophy or a reason to get some explosions into the picture).  Metropolis's high concept on the other hand lead to political and critical controversy (enjoy this take down by dissenter H.G. Welles), highly edited, nearly incoherent versions.  Therein perhaps lies the main lesson in the comparison of these two films.  Anyone looking to stir up controversy today should tackle a subject other than the eternal, unresolvable struggle between the haves and have-nots.  Which may not necessarily be such a good sign of progress.  Because while we almost all now agree with the triumphantness of the statement, we've also accepted the inevitability of the premise.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, it was an awesome read. I love Metropolis and I love Distritc 9. I loved this post and it was very well thought.

Anonymous said...

I love this series! It makes me look at some of my favorite films in a whole new light. Metropolis is and always will be a classic. So good Sondheim wrote a song about it!*

*+1 to whomever gets that (terrible) joke

Lara said...

Great series! I love both these movies and never would've thought of them having similarities! Might I suggest a future installment of Giant and Titanic?