Right out of the gate here, I'm going to commit one of the capital sins of criticism. I am going to review the film I wanted rather than the film that director Neill Blomkamp delivered. Perhaps it is a case of the original trailer for District 9 making a pledge the filmmaker was not committed to 100 percent, or simply a learning experience in screenplay writing, or the desire to indulge in some crazy technical special effects (Blomkamp's original vocation) As a fan of ideas science-fiction, I demand that one cable channel or another take the promise of the opening two reels and denouement and make The Office slash The Wire slash Alien Nation that this film oozes style, intelligence and depth. This fictional TV series would very likely trump Battlestar Galatica which its tendency to drift into soapy space opera or religious mysticism. But I digress. There is way more to like about District 9 than to nit-pick, that this is essential a mid-to-low budget independent science fiction action blockbuster that looks as good as anything bought for $175 Million. Any aspiring aspiring to Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Peter Jackson would absolutely kill to have this as their debut film. Yet, as a thematic sci-fi piece, it surrenders to a shoot-em-up action that simply ignores the Apartheid allegory so painstakingly established.
The huge alien mothership hovering above Johannesburg like a derelict angel. Does it demand faith of the poverty and stupid prawn population walled off in segregation below, that someone will come along and make right, or merely a hollow shell and a reminder of grandness? In leaning towards faith, that is what the viewer must have whenever the characters have to figure out language cues in the heat of the moment, or become acquainted with ridiculously complicated technological goodies simply lying around in a heavily patrolled military zone. The plot of District 9 when it kicks in, threatens to shatter the interesting world of social and moral problems laid out so elegantly in mock-doc multi-format media style. Yes, I wish the whole movie was a documentary and not trying to be the entire Alien franchise folded (yes all four of them) together into a single film.
Since District 9 is set in the present, I imagine that the aliens came to down, tired, hungry, devoid of their ruling caste and driving a broken-down vehicle somewhere in the late 1990s. Rapidly we jump 20 years of co-habitation in a single location in South Africa. Yes, there is the obligatory shady govermnet genetic research lab, but wither all the scientists and social workers? Where are the do gooders and the academics? The military and private corporate drone types (of which our hero, not unlike Greg Kinnear in Fast Food Nation, gets the usual awakening) have been interacting in close quarters and at length enough to develop the worst kind of casual racism. "Prawns" becomes the derogatory name of choice, but what is surprising is that in the middle of actual social Apartheid, nobody would notice a metaphor/allegory/analogy dropped in the middle of their lap. The implications of human hookers with Prawn-Johns(tm) is icky and scandalous and thrown into your face then simply dropped. Ditto on the classic cannibal theme of getting the enemies strength by ingestion. There are enough ideas and concepts in District 9 to power a small studio for years, and the technical prowess and aesthetics are indeed state of the art. But what does it all add up to? A great B-film. Boil away technical and aesthetic trappings and the establish documentary footage and you are left with something not too far off of Stargate or Independence day. Points are certainly earned for the turning the human/alien persecution on its head in a novel way, but the follow through is frustrating. Seeing all the crazy body-horror elements reminded me of David Cronenberg and Shiny Tsukamoto, but they used the extreme visuals to get somewhere, which is not the case here. In fact the trigger here is not the physical manifestation of divorce and motherhood (The Brood), total immersion in science (The Fly), media (VideoDrome) or the physical manifestation of guilt, sexuality and rage (Tetsuo). Not unlike the laziness of 'Red Matter' in the rebooted Star Trek as a spontaneous black-hole generator, our hero/doofus Wikus van der Merwe's transformation by rocket fuel, one of the serious WTF plot moments in the film, feels like a convenient turn of events for the screenplay rather than a plausible scientific possibility.
All of my issues with the actual storytelling in the middle chapters, call them the Cameron moments, complete with military cams, heavy artillery fetishes, and yes a lifter-loader type contraption just are not told with the sophisticated narrative chops of James Cameron. The action is there in spades, but the human side is left to clichés well turned over in other movies. I also propose a full moratorium on Heads Up Displays, it was alright in Star Wars and Tron, but exhausting by the time Ironman came along). Yet, District 9 is such a brilliant show of technical and conceptual prowess, such a global breath of fresh air, part of me feels like an asshat for pointing out that it is not the masterpiece that the Tomato-meter seems to suggest. Sure the style and technique will be mimicked a lot for some time to come, and Blomkamp is certainly one of the most promising blockbuster filmmakers to come along in a while. I am fully aware that this film should be celebrated what for a blockbuster summer movie is absolutely top-shelf. But that trailer promised me a hard science fiction classic, and hard sci-fi this is not. I hope Blomkamp and company aim even higher next time, instead of the obvious choice of Halo.