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Historically, science fiction has been treated like a red-headed step child by Oscar. In 1977, Star Wars broke into the Best Picture category, but its universally-accepted-as-better sequel The Empire Strikes Back got the cold shoulder from the little gold statue in 1980. Two years after that, where was Blade Runner’s nomination? Ridley Scott crafted a sweeping epic, more visually stunning than anything film goers had ever seen, but still the sci-fi staple got no love. How could the Academy shun Rutger Hauer? Since then, science fiction has remained forgotten; forgone in lieu of the nearly 150 dramas which have hogged the nominations for 30 years.
But in 2010, not one but TWO films have kicked their way out of sci-fi purgatory and into the Best Picture category, one of which stands out as the clear winner: District 9. How did a movie about mid-level manager slowly morphing into an alien find itself in the same category with An Education and Precious? Short answer: because it’s god damn awesome. District 9 defines awesome. Story? Awesome. Acting? Awesome. Visual Effects? Double Awesome. The Best Picture category is usually littered with dramas trying so hard to elicit an emotional response that it’s impossible to really sit back and enjoy a great film. Crash for example. Getting a deep or meaningful story out of that mess of blatant racism and open weeping is impossible when you're consistently too shocked by the dialogue to pay attention to the story, or too busy sitting in a puddle of your own tears and wondering why it is you're crying in the first place. Crash was actively emotional to a fault.
District 9 on the other hand is passively emotional. It doesn't so much try to punch through your chest to rip at your heart strings as it does just unfold and let you choose if and when you should let your guard down and take a few jabs. It’s impossible to not feel sympathy for the plight of Wikus Van de Merwe, whose only concern is whether or not he’ll see his wife again, but the film isn’t bogged down by endless scenes of the South African crying “woe is me” into a busted mirror in the slums of D9. Instead he’s a fighter, a man battling to regain his life and expose the MNU. You won’t find yourself bawling into your popcorn, your emotions get a work out all the same.
Yet there’s more to movies than simply emotion. District 9 is a visual feast built on photorealistic special effects being pulled off for pennies. Sure, Avatar is great to look at despite its weak and recycled story, but D9 did everything it did for $520 million less than Cameron’s Pandoran epic and the results are just as stunning as if you’d just watch those giant blue Indians fly some dragons around. Never will you look at Christopher Johnson and not be fooled into thinking there’s actually a bug-like prawn standing on set with Sharlto Copley. Every shot fired from the film’s fully imaginary, utterly exotic alien weaponry is as believable as if it were military issue. You can tell yourself that what you’re seeing isn’t real, but your eyes will never believe it.
The real triumph of District 9 is its ability to be culturally relevant without beating you to death with its ideals. Neill Blomkamp made a film that obviously mirrors his native South Africa’s Apartheid struggles, but never do you feel like you’re gagging on the corollaries. Movies don’t need to leave their audience feeling assaulted when they walk out of the theater in order for there to be an underlying message, and D9 does a perfect job walking that tight rope between subtlety and offensive over-zealousness.
If you need a poster child for what an Oscar film should be, you’ll find it in District 9. With a unique story, spotless acting, and cultural weight, it pushes the envelope visually by raising the bar for all effects driven films that don’t have $550 million dollars to blow on whatever they want. It defines what film making should be, and deserves to take every statue it’s nominated for. We’ve had 30 years of period dramas, epic dramas, based on a true story dramas, war dramas, gangster dramas, and disability dramas. But movies are more than just girls in corsets or guys with Tommy Guns. Isn’t it time science fiction earned a real place at the Oscars?
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