The introduction of new technologies would always spark debates about their nature and cause self-reflection in the culture absorbing it (Thorburn & Jenkins 2003, 4). According to Sean Cubitt (2010), in the digital age “the meaning of … cinema has changed”, and yet we are still uncertain of what these changes are. Through an analysis of Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9, I hope to examine in this essay the crossroad that we are faced with – the merging and confusion of boundaries between the old and the new made possible by digitisation.
At the point of transition, many scholars are caught asking: What exactly is “new” about the digital age? While emerging media platforms tend to be experimental and self-reflexive, they are also necessarily rooted in past experience (Thorburn & Jenkins 2003, 7). But these opposing aspects are still parts of the same ongoing process in which the medium attempts to find its own place relative to existing formats. The cinema began by borrowing from theatre, photography and prose and was consequently imitated by others (Thorburn & Jenkins 2003, 10). Perhaps now it is borrowing even from itself by imitating those who imitated it. Yet, it is overly reductive to say that technology had no effect on the medium. Even though movies are still being made with familiar techniques, digital imagery did significantly altered how films are produced. Thus, the digital gives us a new horizon, a new perspective to think about cinema (Elsaesse 1998, 204). It is useful for us to think of the digital age as “evolution, not revolution” (Thorburn & Jenkins 2003, 12). And evolution brings with it uncertainties about the future, about the intermingling of the old and the new, and about how history will catch up to us. Now we turn to look at District 9 and how it embodies this confusion of a cinema in transition.
During the first half, District 9 were flooded with forged interview footages of “expert” discussion and videos taken from MNU’s database
Fake news segments with headlines and commentaries was also a common trait
Equally common were direct and even physical interactions between Wickus and the camera
These scenes clearly owed much from the style of documentaries and news reports, which are generally perceived as objective records of reality (Hoffmann 1998, 159). As such, they worked to enhance the sense of reality and immediacy present in the film, erasing any trace of it being scripted and well-rehearsed.
Only ten minutes into the film, viewers were already presented with insect-like, anthropomorphic aliens. Furthermore, these aliens are shown mostly in explicit, frontal, full-bodied shots. The aliens were portrayed in fine details, and their physical appearance and movements also bore indexical characteristic with their human counterparts.
The revolution brought about by CGI technologies is its capability to allow filmmakers near-total control over the light, texture and movement of virtual images, granting them a convincingly authentic status (Prince 1996, 34). As a result of technological innovation, the aliens were able to pass as a natural and uncontested part of the film despite being quite fantastical creatures. They were not real but rather perceptually realistic, acquiring significant degrees of photographic realism while remaining imaginary correspondences (Prince 1996, 34).
The “realness” of these aliens brought a heightened sense of realism to the film. Yet it was a strange kind of realism. Viewers were aware that they were only watching a movie, not a documentary, that the characters are fictional, that events were not real and neither were the aliens. They were aware of the fact that, just like the documentaries whose style the film was imitating, impressions of reality could actually be heavily mediated (Pierson 2002, 103), and in this case entirely fictitious.
In stark contrast to previous parts, after Wickus escaped from MNU into hiding in District 9, the “documentary” was replaced by a more conventional Hollywood blockbuster style with spectacular fight scenes and actions.
The use of shaky camera shots is still fairly noticeable, but they acted less to enhance the sense of reality than to serve more the purpose of creating thrills and excitement. Indeed, audience could not see Wickus turning back and talk to the camera anymore and was instead placed in a seamless storyline with little disruptions. This change is remarkable in itself because it operated on a double logic: not only did it illustrate a transition from the banal and ordinary into the spectacular, it also represented the shift from the new and original into the old and traditional. Just as astonishment give way to familiarity and invisibility (Gunning 2003, 41), the novelty would gradually become the conventional. As such, special effect and digital technology is both enhancing and limiting. They represent the most technologically advanced modes of expression, while at the same time running the risk of exhausting its own aesthetic possibilities (Pierson 2002, 158). The innovative “doco-style” that engaged with viewers before is deconstructed into an ordinarily spectacular cinematic experience.
This intermingling between the real and the fictional, the old and the new, the banal and the spectacle proved to be a success of District 9. If in the first part, the film was brought into alignment with “our world” through its correspondences with its objective documentations, the latter part presented to us a more seamless fictional world. Yet in relation to the “film world”, the stylistics of the first part made explicit the camera’s presence and thus the mediation of images, while the uninterrupted narrative in the second half showed us a more or less truthful and personal account of the characters. As such, “our world” and “their world” are simultaneously brought into cohabitation and opposition with each other, and we are not sure what we are looking at anymore.
We are looking at immediacy. CGI and special effects bring our visual experience closer to reality, resulting in a heightened sense of presence (Bolter & Grusin 2000, 22). We are looking at hypermediacy. It is in this multi-windowed visuality that we see things in more than one spatial and temporal frame simultaneously (Friedberg 2002, 348). And we are looking at both of them at the same time. The hybrid nature of both processes creates an even more hybrid interaction between them, where each is reminiscent of the existence of and desire for the other. Media practices in the digital age have alternated the potentials that a medium can produce, old assumptions are challenged and boundaries begin to erode (Uricchio 2002, 32). Yet even this confusion of reality and fiction, of the old and the new has always been at the heart of our experience with the cinema, the televisions and even the books (Thorburn 2002, 21). Technological innovation brings with it the utopian dream of a future radically transformed and also the risk of it becoming a banal “second nature”; but even when the future becomes history, this imagined utopia can only be – to a degree – forgotten but never completely erased (Gunning 2003, 56). The contestation between the old and the new would always come back to us and influence how we think and talk about points of transition.
Blomkamp, N 2009, dir. District 9, TriStar Pictures.
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Cubitt, S 2010. Making Space, Senses of Cinema 57, available at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/making-space/
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Hoffmann, K 1998. “‘I See, if I Believe it’ – Documentary and the Digital”, in Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in the Digital Age, T. Elsaesser & K. Hoffmann (Eds.), Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 159-166.
Pierson, M 2002, Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder, New York, Columbia University Press.
Prince, S 1996. True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory, Film Quarterly, 49(3) 27-37.
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Thorburn, D 2003. “Web of Paradox”, in Rethinking Media Change, D. Thorburn & H. Jenkins(Eds.), Cambridge, The MIT Press, 19-22.
Uricchio, W 2003. “Historicizing Media in Transition”, in Rethinking Media Change, D. Thorburn & H. Jenkins(Eds.), Cambridge, The MIT Press, 23-38.