Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9

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.


The Film Doctor said...

A interesting, evenhanded review. I was struck by several aspects of Wikus' relationship with his wife. For one, she seems too good-looking to be married to him. Secondly, one would think he would figure out that every time he receives her call on the cell phone, the police is tracking the call. She is his one connection to any sense of normality as he begins to metamorphose, but, naturally given the film's bleak take on human relations, even she cannot be trusted. Blomkamp seems most comfortable depicting the various ways people exploit the aliens and each other.

Richard Bellamy said...

Well said, FilmDr. There were so many oddly irritating things about this movie, and I found her very irritating. Right, she seems to elegant for him, and she seems to make fun of the little items he would make for her as a token of his endearment. There are a lot of oddball elements in this movie but they don't add up to a successful oddball film like Brazil or something like that.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: I had no idea how you'd respond to this movie, given that there are some genres with which you're especially forgiving, and I wondered if this would worm its way in. But indeed it seems too problematic. I found I could go several directions with my own review, and one thing I never really explored is the campish treatment of the African mobsters, which is kind of unusual in a film that's supposed to be showing us how we marginalize "the other."

Anyway, this observation is right on: Wikus is the "South African version of Borat." That didn't occur to me, but it's a perfect description!

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Jason. Yes, I can be forgiving with sci-fi. Even if the logic of the film's world doesn't work all the time, if the film is gripping and visually impressive, then I love it. But this film was neither gripping nor visually impressive. It's a mess. I didn't have high hopes for this film, but I sure expected it to be more solid than it is.

Daniel said...

Ha, I agree with Jason that the Borat observation is amusing and I completely missed it.

Also, I'm glad you brought up the inconsistency of his wife's feelings, because I was a little tempted to roll my eyes when she called back gushing that she still wanted to be with him. It was her allegiance to daddy that got him in this trouble to begin with!

Well I'll be really surprised if she shows up in the sequel because nobody has championed her presence. Here's hoping, at least.

Also, I'd like to check out Alien Nation. Seemed silly when it first came out (and I was a kid), but it sounds intriguing. Still, I'll have to get over the idea that "aliens" are simply humans with dots on their heads.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Daniel. Yeah, aliens with dots on their heads! I guess Alien Nation is low budget. But it incorporates some of the same elements as District 9. The prawns dig cat food; in AN the aliens get drunk on milk.

Yeah, the wife is not a character we want to see again; or, she could turn out to be the big villain in a sequel. You point out her allegiance to daddy. Yes, that made her the spoiled little daughter of a fascist daddy and I wanted her to get blasted by prawns.

Bijo said...

this is absolutely the best review of the movie I've see anywhere. You are one of the few who seem to have "got it", so to speak.

Everyone else seems to only see an apartheid allegory and miss the whole general human intolerance and cruelty allegory.

Bijo said...

this is absolutely the best review of the movie I've see anywhere. You are one of the few who seem to have "got it", so to speak.

Everyone else seems to only see an apartheid allegory and miss the whole general human intolerance and cruelty allegory.

Richard Bellamy said...

Bijo - Thanks very much for visiting my blog, for the comment, and for the compliment. Yes, just the Apartheid allegory seemed too easy. There are more universal elements going on in this film - but I wish the film had addressed them more effectively. There was such potential here but then it's as though the writers got lazy and relied too much on standard sci-fi-alien tropes.