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Entries in District 9 [2009] (1)

Monday
Aug172009

District 9 (2009)

Nein!

There’s a great deal of laughable hype surrounding District 9, saucer-eyed hysteria that labels the film “thinking-person’s sci-fi.” On the contrary, this is the kind of experience where checking one’s brain at the concession stand is the only way to avoid a maddening two-hour slog through third-baked ideas and tiresome tough-guy clichés. I wasn’t so much disappointed by District 9 as frustrated by it. With all the critical acclaim and near-Twilight level of geek exuberance at Comic-Con last month, I expected some kind of originality or compelling story; instead, I felt like the victim of a multi-million-dollar practical joke.

The premise is fine. An alien spacecraft stalls over Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982 and sits dormant for two months. Upon cutting into the ship, government officials discover millions of malnourished squid-faced aliens, apparently the worker bees of some larger colonial empire. During the next two decades, the aliens are relocated to the slums below, where they adopt all the best traits of human beings, including prostitution and arms dealing. News footage and interviews show the downtrodden of South Africa rioting and complaining about the interlopers in a “we were an oppressed minority first” fashion, which leads a shady corporation called MNU to intercede and—working with the government—set about moving the aliens to a concentration camp outside of Johannesburg. District 9’s first ten minutes is compelling stuff, with documentary footage recounting the first encounter through the paramilitary raid on the alien ghetto; we’re treated to some spectacular ideas which—this being thinking-person’s sci-fi—promise a mind-bending story over the next couple of hours.

Then we meet Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). He’s an MNU stooge whose recent promotion grants him the honor of presenting eviction notices to the aliens (or “prawns” as they’re dismissively called). Wikus is a good-natured bureaucrat with a lovely wife and a father-in-law with a cushy directorship at MNU. For the first twenty minutes, Copley’s performance reminded me of Michael Scott, the amiable idiot from NBC’s The Office—lovable but cringe-inducing in his lack of self-awareness. Wikus leads the armed convoy into the slums, knocking on tin shack doors to get prawns’ signatures on relocation notices. While investigating some sort of chop shop hidden in one of the houses, he is sprayed with goo from a black canister that gradually transforms him into one of the aliens, which of course makes him a target of MNU. It is important to note, however, that Wikus’ transformation begins much earlier, when his ineffective, smiling desk-jockey persona gives way to that of a bullying racist. If that last sentence seems inconsistent with the rest of the paragraph, welcome to District 9.

There have been so many great books and movies created around the idea of the disillusioned company man on the run from his evil former employer that to even try to get away with cutting corners in plot and character development is an unforgivable sin. Wikus alternates between self-interested coward and socially awakened good guy so often during the film that I wondered if he’d become the first genuinely schizophrenic super hero of the new century. With three floppy black fingers growing out of his arm, he escapes an MNU hospital and heads for the slums, where humans dare not go. He encounters Christopher, the only intelligent prawn in the film, who has perfected a fuel that will allow the mother ship to restart and return to his home world. The only complication is that the same canister that mutated Wikus is also the fuel source (?) and has been confiscated by MNU. Christopher assures Wikus that he can cure the mutation if he is allowed to return home, so the two stage a raid on MNU HQ, using weapons that only the aliens—and those with alien DNA—can fire. If this sounds confusing, it’s not, in the context of the film; the one thing District 9 has going for it, which is also one of it’s biggest flaws, is that it introduces a lot of plot points and ideas that almost cohere; it also takes zero time to flesh out these ideas, and instead mashes them together hurriedly, in an effort to show us how much stuff cool alien guns can vaporize.

This manifests early on in the way the story is told. As mentioned earlier, District 9 opens with documentary footage and interviews; it is here that we meet Wikus and learn of his assignment. But almost immediately come interviews with his family and friends that speak of him in the past-tense, meaning that before we even get to know this character, we’re already informed that something awful has happened to him, and that the movie is not unfolding in real time. In the far superior Cloverfield (no, obnoxious characters and a lack of glory shots of the monster do make a monster movie bad), the audience is told at the outset that the story they’re being told involves essentially doomed characters; it's like one of those drunk driving commercials depicting a five-year-old’s birthday party that ends with pop-up text saying everyone in the video was killed. This, however, is not nearly as jarring as the fact that the documentary style is abandoned a half-hour into the picture in favor of a conventional omniscient action-movie perspective. Coincidentally, this is also the point at which the ideas stop flowing and the bullets start flying.

Much has been made of co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut, and I definitely grant him points for style. The ship footage is handled convincingly; the aliens are more often than not seamlessly integrated with their human counterparts. But to sell a movie such as this, the ideas need to be consistent and solid. For example, much of the hype has been built on Distric 9’s Apartheid allegory. But aside from depictions of the slums and some early footage of whining locals, the story never delves into real issues of segregation and oppression. We’re told that the prawns are being relocated to concentration camps, but we’re never shown why or why that’s bad; which is to say that the movie does very little to prove that A) anyone would care if the prawns were simply exterminated or B) that the camps are actual death camps and not simply a new kind of slum that’s been removed from the middle of the human populace. This brings to mind several other questions: why were they put in the middle of Johannesburg in the first place? Is there only one reasoning prawn in the whole race? If so, why didn’t he act as a spokesperson? Do other countries recognize the prawn’s plight? Is the United States interested in their technology? Why do humans understand prawn language but at no time attempt to speak it? If the film is intended to be an Apartheid allegory, it is the only one I’ve seen in which the oppressed people are depicted exactly as the racists see them: simple-minded, violent, self-interested sub-humans. I’d wager this wasn’t Blomkamp’s intent, but he spent so much time disintegrating soldiers and crashing spaceships that he apparently set his story notes on fire in the process.

There’s really a lot more to say about the problems in District 9, but you’re either going to see it or not see it. If you choose to fork over your money, I implore you to not also surrender your mind. And if you do come out loving this picture, I recommend taking a few days to read George Orwell’s 1984 and watch Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Neither is about aliens, but they deal with the same themes as District 9 (oppression, military-industrial secrecy, the tricky nature of the human condition), minus the pyro-porn, transforming robots and unreliable characters. I doubt you’ll be able to watch District 9 a second time with the same eyes.