district-9-20090714064556476_640wBy Seth Keim

Many (in fact, most) of the articles you’ll read this Oscar season will somehow relate to the Academy’s decision to expand the roster of Best Picture nominees to ten and the ramifications of this change. Historically, there have been certain kinds of genre films, like animated films and raunchy comedies, that have been excluded from the top five, like WALL-E last year and the 40 Year Old Virgin several years ago. With the expanded playing this year field another genre that might get a nod is the smart summer action film. However, there likely will only be one nomination, if even one, available, so it might come down to a battle between two “thinking person’s” action films with successful August bows, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. In a way, the two films are inverses of each other, and while it might not have received the same critical adoration, Inglourious Basterds is the more deserving of an Oscar nomination.

Opening just a week apart, both of these films were the kind of antidote to the mindless popcorn films (ahem, Transformers) that dominate most of summer. What’s interesting is what differentiates the two. One is a story about aliens on earth and other a WWII retelling, but it is the extraterrestrial tale that sets itself up as be based in our reality. And while Basterds features real-life historical figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, it is clearly a work of imagination, more fan fiction than textbook adaptation. It is precisely this set up, and how true each film stays to their world, that shows how Inglourious Basterds is the more consistent, stronger tale.

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 begins with documentary-style footage and interviews detailing the history of the aliens’ arrival, showing how the weak, lost creatures were set up in camps within Johannesburg. By setting the film in South Africa, there was no mistaking the allusion between the segregation of the aliens (or “Prawns”) and the now-ceased practice of Apartheid. The settlement of the aliens behind a fence no doubt also calls to mind the confinement of Jews to ghettos and the internment of Japanese into military camps during WWII. Clearly then, the filmmakers want you to take this film seriously, that this situation is something that could feasibly happen in the real world, it’s a predicament that has precedent (in the precursor District 9, the short film Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp utilized interviews with real people talking about the influx of immigrants into South Africa, further staking the story in the real world). It was this choice, combining documentary style footage with a real life allegory that initially elevates District 9 beyond its sci-fi brethren. It quickly goes behind typical alien fodder and raises issues of racism and xenophobia, and asks the viewer to question what would be the right decision in this situation, morally, ethically, politically, etc. For forty-five minutes District 9 is about as compelling and stirring as any sci-fi film in recent memory. Unfortunately, the second half fails to deliver on the promise of the first.

Midway through the film the plot veers away from the documentary style approach, away from the story about a government paper pusher putting himself into harm’s way to hold the company line, and becomes a standard chase thriller. By the third act it devolves into, frankly, Transformers, as the “hero,” Wikus van de Merwe, literally dons a mechanized battle suit to fight the pursuing military, obliterating soldiers to bits with alien Tesla blasters. From an auspicious, ambitious beginning the film quickly turns into a very standard action shoot-em up, and somewhat negates the brilliance of the first half, losing the tone and muddling the overall message.

Basterds, in contrast, announces from the first minute that it’s a fantasy, titling the first scene “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France,” and never relents on this premise. By inserting title cards Tarantino lets us know that we’re seeing different acts, and that in effect this is his version of WWII. Like District 9, Basterds alludes to real people and events, Hitler, Nazis, the SS, Jews, but it always does so under the pretense that these are interpretations of these events. Indeed, it is the real characters like Hitler and Goebbels who come off as oversized cartoons, and the fictional ones, like Christopher Waltz’s SS agent Hans Landa and Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), an escaped Jewish woman who assumes a French identity, who are the most well rounded, nuanced characters.

You may not care for Tarantino’s version of the events, but there is no denying that he maintains the tone. Like District 9, Basterds ends in a wave of violence. But while it is over the top, pulpy violence, it’s over the top, pulpy violence that falls in line with the rest of the film. It may be grotesque, near pornographic, but from frame one we knew this was Tarantino’s revenge fantasy. When we are first introduced to the Basterds their leader, Brad Pitt’s gruff Lt. Aldo Raine, tell his men that he requires 100 “Nahzee” scalps, and he wants his scalps. And there’s never any doubt that he’s going to get them. In a discussion of the film Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman notes that to Tarantino, “everything is a game.” Yet is a game with rules, rules that Tarantino adheres to.

Obviously, it’s not enough to say one movie is better than another just on the basis of a shift in tone. Certainly, a consistently terrible movie is not better than a film that is ¾ brilliant. Except that in other areas Basterds does exceed District 9. The former features exceptional acting, not just by Waltz but an excellent ensemble including Pitt, Dreyfus, Diane Kruger and Daniel Brühl. Indeed, Basterds features several strong female characters, whereas the only major female in District 9 is Wikus’ wife, who is mostly part of the scenery. Both films deal with languages; District 9 features interspecies dialogue as Wikus communicates and later collaborates with the Prawns, as they respond to his language with an invented dialect. Basterds, on the other hand, offers several scenes of actors switching effortlessly from German to French to English (although, to hilarious results, some characters have great difficulty trying out their Italian); so effortlessly, in fact, that long stretches of the film are subtitled without any detriment to the enjoyment of the film. Finally, both films start out with stirring, attention grabbing openings. The documentary package that introduces us to District 9 is authentic and gripping, immediately investing the viewer in the story. However, the opening scene of Basterds, a 20 minute dialogue between Col. Landa and a French dairy farmer harboring Jews in his floorboards, is probably the best twenty minutes of any film this year, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and beautifully directed. It’s so good they could probably lop off the subsequent two hours and submit the opening act for the short film prize.

When it comes down to it, in many aspects, Inglourious Basterds just demonstrates better filmmaking. Even though it was shot in Europe and features a handful of foreign languages, it is also a more traditional Hollywood film, and really, that’s what the Oscars are likely recognize. Gleiberman closed his discussion by saying that Basterds is a “Hollywood experience, no more, no less, through that heightened Tarantino lens.” It’s a Hollywood experience made transcendent by that lens, honoring the history of film while rewriting the history of the world.