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Non-Review Review: District 9

It was good, but not great. That’s about it. I was somewhat underwhelmed by what is being hailed as the most fresh and original science fiction film since… well, Moon way back in June. Maybe I’m being harsh though. A lot of it was very good, some of it was great, but some of it made my very uncomfortable. And not in the way that social commentary is meant to make you feel uncomfortable.

Illegal aliens...

Illegal aliens...

Let’s start with the good stuff (which is appropriate since it’s located near the start of the film). It is refreshing to have an alien movie that doesn’t rely on the old ‘invason’ schtick. Using science fiction as a metaphor to examine open wounds is by no means a new thing – commentators frequently point to The Day The Earth Stood Still, but even Metropolis had a social conscience hidden away. Here it offers us a shocking look at apartheid South Africa, a gaping wound that is still open even after years of attempted reconciliation.

By offering a look at anti-prawn (itself a pejorative term – we never get a proper or non-demeaning name for the aliens) sentiment, the film gets away with a fairly strong message and a reflection on a past that is fairly recent they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to look at. The alien slums are filmed on location in real slums and the fictional District 9 is an inversion of the actual District 6. Sure, the movie doesn’t really get points for subtlety, but this a subject that doesn’t really warrant subtlety.

Another aspect where the production succeeds is with its leading character and its leading actor. Wikus van de Merwe is a refreshingly complicated leading man. He seems pleasant enough and is just patronising enough to the aliens that you begin to believe that the problem is really one of perception – he’s been raised to think of them as less than human, and his life of privilege hasn’t given him the necessary perspective. In any other movie that veil would be magnificently lifted and he would emerge enlighted from his niave innocence. Except, the movie hints that the veil isn’t quite so innocent. At various points during the film he reveals that he knows that the new settlement for the aliens is a concentration camp by any other name, and he’s shown as a consumate self-serving liar (wouldn’t most of us be at that stage?), so his statement that he didn’t know about experimentation is hard to take at face value. Throughout the film, he’s never presented as particularly enlightened by his experiences and he’s capable of committing just about any selfish act he believes will get him what he wants. Still, he never seems like a completely unlikeable (or incomprehensible) fellow, mostly through a fantastic performance from Sharlto Copley. 

The third major area where the film succeeds is in special effects. Except for the fact that it has been all over the press, you wouldn’t know it was shot on $30m. It looks much more expensive. The creatures themselves are interesting – not really alien (two legs, two big arms and a head), but still looking strange enough and realistic enough to draw the attention of the audience. Indeed, the director manages a fantastic job of piecing everything together – his action sequences are tight and his shots are disturbing when they should be (for the most part, see below).

Finally, I like the hybrid of the documentary and film. It works here – which is rare. It’s nice to see a film move between a mockumentary and a regular movie structure, but District 9 does with ease. As such, the film is able to introduce its high concept effectively and quickly. It also meeans that the flm is immersive in its portrayal of the settlers, explaining everything from an addiction to cat food to their relationships with multi-nationals and internal gangs. It’s a nice touch which manages to present esposition in a manner that engages with the audience, rather than boring them.

Now, on to the elements that prevent it from being a great film. There’s been a fair bit of controversy over the portrayal of the Nigerian mob in the film (actually, over the portrayal of Nigerians in general – but they’re all members of the mob) and my girlfriend picked up on that too. I think I can see what Blomkamp is doing – but it isn’t an area where you want ambiguity, particularly in a film that is as subtle as a mortar to the chest. To my mind, Blomkamp subtly raises the issue of Africans as second class citizens throughout the film, in a variety of ways, but he never particularly expresses it. For example, the only member of the team sent into District 9 without a bulletproof vest? Fundiswa Mhlanga, Wikus’s African right-hand man. This isn’t the only example where Mhlanga is singled out or victimised.

The presence of the Nigerians within the zone is meant to be an expression of this Even ‘legitimate’ workers (like the butchers) are all Africans – implying that the social caste system isn’t completely different – there’s just a new bottom teir in South African society. The Nigerians are a twisted reflection of the corporation that seeks to exploit the aliens. Much as MNU hopes to (metaphorically) consume the alien technology and gain access to their power, the Nigerian mobs seek the same goals. Except that they lack the education and financial power to pursue it in so sophisticated a manner – that power rests with the capitalists and has been used to keep these mobsters in their place. So instead of technological consumption, these criminals resort to physical consumption in their pursuit of power.

The problem is that – if this is what Blomkamp is putting forward – he doesn’t make his point clearly enough. Particularly in a film that takes pride in its lack of subtlety. They may as well simply be a plot device. They might as well go to the back of the class with the drunken Irishman and the posh Brit and the other two-dimensional stereotypes.

My other problem lies in a particular sequence in the film’s middle. I won’t spoil it for anybody reading, but you’ll know it when you see it. The riots and the forced relocation that the movie seeks to evoke in its imagery and narrative was a tragedy. It ended in the pointless and brutal loss of life. The film has no qualms with the violence but – it seems to me – it plays a large part of it for laughs – there’s a reason the Irish Classification Board deemed it a ‘spoof’. Bodies splatter and heads are thrown off bodies, but it is timed for comic relief. There’s a moment which eerily echoes the market place “sword fight” in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a death is dealt in a casual and offhand manner. We’re meant to chuckle that taking a life is so easy. It doesn’t work in the context of the film. What’s worse is that it undermines the actual horrific moments that the film catches. Being ripped to shreds by an angry mob isn’t so scary if you’ve just seen a dozen people go splat in ways that remind you of Peter Jackson’s BrainDead.

The sequence doesn’t work. Which is a shame because it takes up a lot of screentime and then dominates (or crowns) the film. It’s what the viewer thinks about when leaving the cinema and it undermines all the good work that Blomkamp has put in.

Still, it’s well worth a look – it’s refreshing and it’s exciting. For the first hour or so it’s even compelling. It’s just as shame that the movie doesn’t really explore the racial divide that it attempts to mirror, or at least explain why it has chosen a bunch of voodoo-worshipping, AK-47-packing Nigerians as a major foil, despite the obvious unfortunate implications.

It’s good, but light years from great.

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District 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp (Alive in Joberg) and produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, The Lovely Bones) and stars Sharlto Copley (Alive in Joberg). It was released in the United States on 14th August 2009 and in the UK and Ireland on 4th September 2009.

One Response

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Tony Brown

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