District 9 – format, racism, games and movies

There’s an interesting discussion of District 9 happening in Spencer’s comment section. Rather than respond inline, I figured I’d blog it and see if the navel-gazing contagion can’t be made to spread further.

First: Kriston is bothered by the film’s formal conceit, or lack thereof:

For structural reasons the film can’t tell us what it wants us to know. They did a bad job deciding about whether it was a compilation of footage or an omniscient film. The move slips at its own convenience between heroic presentation and after-the-fact video artifact, which threatens the integrity of the premise but, much worse, leaves us kind of stranded as viewers. Is this supposed to be a reliable presentation of the facts? Or is it a highly edited, manicured presentation a la Starship Troopers?

[…]Blomkamp has established this narrator through whom all motives must be filtered. Because it isn’t supposed to be a filmed movie in a cinematic sense but an edited compilation of video artifacts. Presumably some post-MNU bureaucracy or media outfit is stitching together all these clips: Perhaps, in light of events and revelations at the end of the film, press were able to acquire access to extraordinary video accounts and so on. I don’t know — it’s really confusing to figure out who’s talking.

The structural aspects notwithstanding (which really ruined the film for me) I thought it was a negative racist message encoded within a positive racial message. As if the film were saying, “Yes, this is a film about positive mutual understanding between black and white Africans. No-no—not Nigerians, no. You know how they are.”

I’m sympathetic to the complaints about the film’s structure. At times I found myself wondering what medium I was supposed to imagine myself to be watching. Ultimately, I concluded that the filmmakers had taken the smart way out by simply declining to answer the question. Why make yourself a slave to a form? If the payoff to adhering to documentarian pretense is greater than the payoff of the available dramatic alternatives, fine. But in this case Blomkamp decided it was better to, say, show Wikus hiding in the tall grass, or to frame him with a close-up in the middle of a firefight, than to preserve the fake-documentary format. So that’s what Blomkamp did — but, interestingly, he didn’t then force himself to surrender the documentary trappings that allowed gigantic hunks of exposition go down (relatively) smoothly. The result doesn’t make a lot of formal sense, but I think it’s evidence of Blomkamp’s properly-set priorities, and is therefore basically fine. There are some movies that are almost exclusively about their form — Blair Witch, Spinal Tap — and for them to step outside of the rules of the game would be disastrous. But this isn’t such a film.

The question of the movie’s Nigerian thugs is one I feel more sheepish about addressing. But if their inclusion bothers us, I have to wonder what an acceptably enlightened alternate portrayal would have looked like.  My guess: pretty lame.

No one seems to be questioning the plausibility of a criminal enterprise emerging to prey upon the residents of District 9. So are we bothered by that operation’s ethnic uniformity? That doesn’t seem right — gangs only tend to be multiethnic melting pots in after-school specials and Jackie Chan movies. Are we bothered by the ruling warlord’s embrace of abhorrent, primitive beliefs in the form of Muti rituals? Well, alright, but Muti is a real thing (click the link, that story’s got killing for body parts, identifies Muti as South African, and involves a Nigerian). And of course warlords have adopted strange mystical beliefs before (and no, by that first link I do not mean to conflate vastly distant and different African cultures within a single, oversimplified continental bin — but the point that bad, ignorant people can subscribe to bad, ignorant religious beliefs shouldn’t be particularly controversial).

So, given that the film also features a number of black Africans behaving like normal human beings — though admittedly in this movie that’s faint praise; and admittedly they do so without much screen time — I’m not sure how upset we should be at the portrayal of the Nigerian gang in the movie. Certainly I don’t agree with Spencer that “you could tell the morality play of District 9 entirely without [the Nigerians]” — they’re necessary to make a point about the weak preying on the weaker, and to hold up a mirror to the civilized facade of MNU.

But of course that’s all pretty easy for me to say. And all of the preceding assumes that establishing plausibility (relative to the universe of the movie) is the same as a get-out-of-jail-free card.  I’m not sure that’s right.

The third thing to discuss is Peter’s theory, relayed by Spencer, that District 9 could represent the dawn of competent videogame filmmaking*; in the same way that the comic book movie crawled from the muck over the past decade, District 9 could be the first of a set of movies to successfully translate games to film.

I think it’s likely that Peter is right about how history will judge the question, but I think that judgment will be unjustified. Games are now an enormous industry, and it’s inevitable that their brands will eventually be slapped on some films sufficiently well-made to distract from the fact that the underlying properties are all shameless ripoffs of Tolkien, Aliens and/or Blade Runner. But I think it’s basically incoherent to talk about adapting a game for the screen. You might as well talk about adapting a breakfast cereal. Sure, Count Chockula could (and no doubt will) eventually show up at the multiplex. But would that have anything to do with cereal? I don’t think it makes sense to approach the question that way.

It’ll really just be the games’ trappings that are adapted; the movies will have nothing to do with the essential thing that makes a videogame a videogame. Yes, you can buy a disc and put it in your Xbox and interact with it and see a great story (though the odds of this happening are extremely slim). But the “great story” part is really a separate artifact from the interactive component that defines the game. Virtually all genuinely good in-game storytelling happens when the user is bolted to his or her seat, temporarily removed from the decisions or tests of skill that make up the bulk of the entertainment.

Games’ settings, characters and plots will be shuttled to the screen — we’ll have lame quests, hackneyed sci-fi settings, enchanted swords and cursed hands aplenty. But those things are just window dressing for the actual play mechanic. They could just as easily exist in a comic or a novel or a Saturday morning cartoon. The essential game aspect of the thing won’t be translated, except via the occasional ill-advised moment of fanservice (e.g. Doom‘s first person camera shots).

I don’t think the situation is the same for comic books — partly by convention and partly due to the format, certain types of stories, characters and storytelling techniques lend themselves to that medium. “Comic book movies” is therefore a somewhat more meaningful concept than “videogame movies” is likely to turn out to be. There’s just much less overlap between what defines a good game and what defines a good movie than there is between what makes a good comic and what makes a good film. “Lots of dialogue and action” is a more helpful constraint for a creator than “the protagonist needs to be able to recover health at various points in the story for no good reason”.

I say all this as a fan of videogames. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that those looking forward to the dawn of great storytelling in games are kidding themselves. Games tend to tell great stories when they’re at their least game-like; and when they do, the parts of the game that linger tend to distract from the narrative experience. Perhaps some day the desire for genuine self-determination can be married to the framework of an expertly-constructed narrative such that user actions can be both meaningful and their consequences dramatically satisfying. But I think that for the foreseeable future, those wishing to square that circle are going to have to stick to drugs and dreams.

In the meantime, the games that can be best turned into movies will be those that are glorified comics with an interface bolted on. Yeah, you can turn that into a movie. But there’s no reason to pretend that its status as a game had anything to do with it.

* District 9 started out as an adaptation of Halo, but when that project fell apart the director was given free reign to pursue a smaller-budget adventure.  What he came up with has a production design that is recognizably descended from the Halo universe, but which shares none of its ponderous, godawful backstory.  Fanboys’ refusal to acknowledge the incredibly-derivative-yet-also-really-stupid-and-boring nature of the Halo games’ setting and story is a persistent source of irritation for me.

2 Responses to “District 9 – format, racism, games and movies”

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