Wednesday, August 19, 2009
District 9 employs documentary-style talking heads, irritating shaky newscam footage, and standard point of view to depict what happens twenty years after an incapacitated spaceship stalls over Johannesburg, South Africa, and the aliens aboard the ship are saved from starvation but are eventually subjected to cruel prejudice and relegated to squalid shanties outside the city, an ironic allusion to South Africa’s apartheid, and a universal allegory paralleling a long history of human intolerance. The talking heads quickly recap twenty years of poor treatment of the alien “prawns,” as they are called derogatorily because of their resemblance to some cross between a shrimp and a grasshopper – similar to the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1964).
Newscam footage proceeds to document what happens when the government initiates a plan to evict the 1.8 million prawns from their shanties and relocate them to a regimented but more restrictive concentration camp. In charge of this massive operation is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an enthusiastic but inept bureaucrat whose bigotry and ignorance help turn the undertaking into a disaster, and whose ineptitude exposes him to a mysterious black fluid that begins to transform him into an alien. Thus, ironically, Wikus, the xenophobic administrator who came to relocate the aliens with clipboard and documents of dubious legality, will learn firsthand, somewhat as in Black Like Me, what it’s like to be a bottom-feeding prawn.
In the first main chapter of the film, this inhumane human undertaking is juxtaposed with everything noisome: vomit both human and alien; a gushing flood of alien urine; black ooze; rotten garbage; bloody meat; hacked up alien corpses; and severed limbs both alien and human. Besides being cruelly intolerant of the aliens, the humans also want to take advantage of alien weapons technology, and this leads to the merciless exploitation of Wickus as his alien DNA melds with alien blasters capable of horrid destruction.
Along with these noisome visuals, the first chapter is filled with absurdities. Like a South African version of Borat, Wickus stands out as an obtuse and bigoted clown who aggravates the antagonistic aliens and causes some sticky situations. Clearly, Wickus’s method of eviction is ridiculous. How can he and his colleagues expect to knock on the shanty doors of 1.8 million aliens and get them to sign themselves into eviction?
When Wikus’s transformation forces him to flee his fellow humans, the film deals less with ironies and absurdities and more with elements of conventional action and science fiction films: E.T.’s endeavors to go home; the raid on the experimentation lab; the alien shuttle craft; the alien robot armor and weaponry that Wickus uses to make a valiant stand. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying the more conventional situations and action of this latter half of the film than the more disjointed first half.
I’m not convinced District 9 is the entirely original sci-fi experience it has been touted to be. The 1988 film Alien Nation dealt with the segregation and discrimination suffered by alien “immigrants” to earth as a human cop learns to tolerate his alien buddy cop. The first third of the film is certainly interesting with the oddball Wickus as an unlikely central protagonist and the weird behavior of the catfood-eating prawns. But the potential for an epic sequence is lost when the relocation operation meant to evict 1.8 million aliens from their shanties seems like a small-scale door-to-door bust. The vast alien spacecraft hovering over Joburg is an impressive image, but we get no panoramic view of a shantytown teeming with over a million insect-like aliens reluctant to leave their digs. The historical commentary is thought-provoking yet obvious, and the film covers twenty years of alien presence on earth with a few comments from talking heads. I could have used a couple of vignettes showing intolerant treatment of aliens over those two decades. Also, what happened to the scene in the preview in which faceless humans coldly interrogate the alien about his people’s intentions on Earth?
Thus, I was glad when the pace picked up. I enjoyed Wickus’s collaboration with Christopher Johnson and his resourceful son, and Wickus’s sacrificial standoff against the cops. Also interesting is the whole process of Wickus’s transformation and the horror he endures because of it. The final image of his full transformation, as he stands in a garbage heap fashioning a tin flower for his wife, is a memorably poignant one. Unfortunately, his wishy-washy wife, who, in an interview in the beginning of the film, seems to suggest that Wickus is kind of a weirdo, doesn’t deserve his love. Perhaps Wickus is holding onto the illusion of her love as a last connection with his humanity. All in all, there are elements to enjoy in this mostly enjoyable science-fiction film, but potential for a more powerful, more engrossing experience is lost to the film’s limited imagination.