I've seen several movies this year in first-run theaters. I know, unusual, right? I've even been positively impressed. I saw Star Trek, Up!, District 9, The Hurt Locker, and Avatar.
And I'm definitely thinking that District 9 and Avatar are good science fiction movies, of the sort we haven't seen too many of lately. They were good, they were serious, and they were original. It's not really a combination we see too often, but the similarity doesn't stop there. Both films were exploring alienation, race, and loyalty, edgy topics that simply were not fashionable when Bush was president.
Both have a human plunged into the society of the aliens, experience the oppression humans place upon them first hand, turn against the human military apparatus, and become physically transformed into aliens themselves. Both films make exceptional use of aesthetics - the Prawn are revoltingly ugly, and the gritty documentary style makes the ugliness of the slum life very real. The Na'vi, on the other hand, are strikingly beautiful, and the film is visually gorgeous.
Both make intense use of historical metaphor to talk about the times in which some humans - and yes, ladies and gentlemen, white Western European industrial English-speaking humans, if we're to be specific - have decided to treat other humans as subhuman. District 9 uses apartheid. Avatar uses the american indian wars. I even noticed Colonel Quaritch, the military leader in Avatar, making what seemed like a deliberate reference to the Ghost Dance.
Now that Obama is in office, those who found it fashionable to be not only patriotic, but nationalistic and jingoistic are becoming rabidly anti-American, cheering when Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics, jeering when a sitting president is handed a Nobel prize. The Democrats haven't picked up the slack; nationalistic fervor has tapered. If The Hurt Locker had the temerity to suggest that some soldiers get hooked on the rush of putting it all on the line in Iraq back in 2004, would it have been labelled anti-American and bad for soldiers' morale?
And heaven forbid that a film show ex-US Marines as ruthless mercenaries engaging in massacring civilians. But that nationalistic fervor has faded, enough that it's no longer fashionable. Suddenly, it's fashionable to talk about race, to examine the question of social identity.
I suppose the bombing of the Home Tree plays a little more like My Lai than any of the battles of the Indian Wars we're familiar with, complete with the soldier who says they didn't sign up for this and decides they've had enough, but I don't think the Vietnam War is a much more comfortable piece of history than the systematic destruction of the american indian nations.
I've heard a few people complain that Avatar has no plot. I count several - a conflict between science and short-term ignorant greed, a romance, a unification story, a sequence of alienation, initiation, and adoption. It's not even badly written, and I didn't spot so many of the egregious hard-to-ignore physics errors so common in flashy big-budget SFX movies. Spiderman 2, I'm looking right at you. That was painful. Anyway, back on topic:
Good science fiction tries to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone. When I see some people reacting in a very visceral way to the "race traitors" of District 9 and Avatar, I see it as a sign those movies are doing something right. Aside from making half their critics look like white supremacist nutjobs, they're prodding hard enough to make some very meaningful statements and ask people questions they might not ask themselves enough.
The moral I see in both films is this. It doesn't matter if they're ten foot tall blue beauties in a neolithic tribal structure or technologically advanced tentacled bugs who get high on cat food, everybody deserves to be treated with a full measure of "human" dignity. If we don't, we are already traitors to our ideals. And that's a radical statement, because we have a devil of a time managing that with other humans.