Sci-fi action movie that aspires to be…something with aspirations?
By Jack Kentala
Before I begin: This is not a review. I won’t summarize the plot; that can be found elsewhere. I’ll talk about many plot points, including the end of the film, so for those who wish to avoid those sort of things, shield your eyes.
On paper, the materialization and success of District 9 seems quite miraculous: a science-fiction film helmed by a first-time narrative film director, whose background stems mainly from visual effects, music videos, and commercials; a film set in South Africa, featuring a cast of unknowns – including the lead – who all have thick South African accents, and with no Hollywood regulars in sight; and, most amazing of all, a Summer Movie not affixed with a subtitle or number, e.g. not a sequel, or a remake, a franchise, or the cornerstone for what the studio hopes is a franchise (see also: G.I. Joe: Pointless Subtitle, X-Men Origins: Insert X-[Wo]Man Character Name Here, and Harry Potter: They Still Are Making Harry Potter Movies? Jesus Christ There’s Already Like Twelve Of Them).
Then again, maybe it’s not so miraculous: director Neill Blomkamp’s name seems to be the fine print compared to the top-billed PETER JACKSON slathered over all advertisements; Pete Jackson having pretty much free reign to greenlight anything he sees fits, and, in this case, tossing Blomkamp $30 million for D9 after the proposed film adaptation of gaming megafranchise Halo fell through; millions upon millions of dollars earmarked by Sony for a viral marketing campaign that, if nothing else, took meticulous notes from last year’s Cloverfield; and the latter of which brought my attention to the film in the first place. Prior to Friday, I had never heard of District 9. I don’t follow the industry. I happened to see that Sony bought out the whole of IMDb to have every available ad space dedicated to the iconic image of the aliens’ mothership. Then, seeing a very positive critical consensus, I decided I could spare the $9.50 and watch something new and current instead of a dusty old Criterion whatnot.
Oh, right, the film:
My first difficulties with District 9 started immediately. The film set itself up with faux documentary footage, cramming in an enormous amount of exposition passed off as real-world footage. Considering that the film is also bookended by this technique, it’s a bit of a cheap trick, and Rule One of filmmaking was broken: Show, don’t tell; granted, there was a bit of showing, but it was accompanied with much telling. In hindsight, I suppose most of that footage could’ve been re-engineered to play linear (like the bulk of the film’s middle, which made the documentary-ness at the start and end seem sort of random and sloppy), but that would’ve added probably a solid thirty minutes to a film with a runtime probably already trimmed to the bone.
All the mixed media added to the general disorientation of the film. The film isn’t a statement about our Media Culture, so it seemed unnecessary at best, and confusing at worst. Cutting from surveillance cameras to a news helicopter to a cinematic camera and then to a cinematic camera strapped to a mercenary’s gun completely destroys any coherent geometry within any scene. As far as modern action movies go, this is rather tame. It’s expected that you can’t see anything other than bodies getting shot and that you can’t freeze-frame your mind and realize exactly what’s going on (a trend mastered sometime between the second and third Bourne movies).
Also, the paper-thin, flimsy allegory for alien-oppression-as-apartheid has been discussed to death, so it bears only a cursory mention. What’s unfortunate, though, is that instead of blacks, we get an alien race comprised entirely of computer-generated imagery. Yeah, it’s been ten years since Star Wars: Episode I, and the technology has made huge advances, but every time an all-CGI characters pops up (see also: Gollum in Bored Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King), there’s a definite case of what’s scientifically known as Jar Jar Binks Syndrome. Or rather, the Uncanny Valley. Never mind that it was intentional to make the alien “prawns” visually gross in an attempt to get them semi-humanized at the end. It’s still always a little too shiny, or a little too fluid, and every time a shot doesn’t get it quite right, my brain triggers a that-isn’t-right-flag that disrupts the whole flow of the narrative. As a somewhat-pertinent sidenote: director Blomkamp’s short “Alive In Joburg” (available to watch in full pretty much anywhere) had the prawns played by humans, albeit seen only as hooded entities with tentacle-mouths hanging down below said hoods. I’m not exactly sure what the middle ground is. Either way: all-CGI characters are hard to pull of in a balls-out action movie; District 9 does a better job than most (like the laughable human-dummies in The Matrix Reloaded and that third Matrix), but can’t we all agree that real people are, ultimately, much more interesting?
Credit is due for the film including, god forbid, a shred of character development. MNU’s Wikus gets points if only for his sweaty, fevered state during the initial stages of his transformation. From there, though, once he sort of realizes he’s turning full-on prawn, he just seems to play the one note of wanting to get his alien buddy to fix him. He doesn’t try to identify with the prawns or even imagine becoming one and living his life as one (though, bam, the movie ended on a riff of that half-baked concept); he just wants that fucking claw to turn back into a human hand so he can snuggle with his wife. (Also: Bonus points for keeping that to a minimum. Who wants action sci-fi bogged down with romance or, sin of all sins, a love triangle?)
Wikus, unfortunately, was the only character anywhere near fully realized. His wife and his father-in-law are static. Same goes for the buzz-cut mercenaries and their buzz-cut Leader Guy. He’s on a razor-straight mission, and only after Wikus pisses him off does he prefer to just rather shoot Wikus in the head than bring him in for nefarious tests and whatnot. That scene in particular – Leader Guy about to kill Wikus – confused the whole identity of the prawns. Yes, the rosy interpretation is that they identify Wikus as One Of Them and then proceed to, literally, rip the Leader Guy apart. But what does that make them? Any different than the violent, stand-offish refugees that seem to comprise 99% of the prawn population? Other than Christopher Johnson, they all seem content to garbage-sift, steal, and piss off the human populace in a variety of means. And yeah yeah yeah, there’s the argument about how We Made Them That Way by encasing them in razor-wired shanty towns, but the 112-minute runtime leaves that up to the imagination. And, let’s face it, as celebrated as this film is for injecting some sort of substance into a usually-braindead genre, no one’s going to sit around with their snifters of brandy and discuss the finer points of District 9 few subtleties.
As scattered in the text above, the setup of acts one and two leads to mindless running-and-gunning in the finale. That comes to its own predictable conclusion, and then the linear film gets fractured back into the documentary framing. There’s some slight hints at a possible sequel, but mostly speculation on what happened / what could’ve happened to Wikus. It’s not hard to guess when, the last we see him, one of his eyes has turned prawn, and it seems an entire half of his body has transformed. The little tacked-on denouement puts to rest any speculation: Wikus’s wife gets a flowers made a junk and, given Wikus’s penchant for making crafty stuff for her, it’s pretty obvious that the missing man-prawn somehow delivered it to her. Then the film cuts to a full-on prawn with a bandaged arm making a second flower. The film doesn’t make any grandstanding at that moment, to say something like, Gee, Maybe We’re Not So Different After All. You might have to think about it a bit to get that message. Or maybe you don’t think at all, and you leave the theater (probably) satisfied, since District 9, in the simplest terms, is an above-average sci-fi-infused action movie with cool guns and a high body count.