A Contrarian View - Review of DISTRICT 9

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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A Contrarian View - Review of DISTRICT 9

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.

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Neill BlomkampTerri TatchellSharlto CopleyJason CopeNathalie BolttSylvaine StrikeActionSci-FiThriller

More about District 9

blauereiterAugust 16, 2009 5:32 PM

"Yet, as a thematic sci-fi piece, it surrenders to a shoot-em-up action that simply ignores the Apartheid allegory so painstakingly established."

I was reading a Richard Corliss review of this film on Time online and this particular paragraph might explain a little as to why the film "surrenders to a shoot-em-up action" - a conscious decision made by the director :

Evicted and imprisoned, deprived of their rights, the aliens could be the Palestinians in Gaza, the detainees in Guantánamo or, transparently, black South Africans for the 46 years of apartheid and, in effect, for centuries before. (The title is a play on District Six, a vibrant mixed-race area of Cape Town that was declared whites-only in 1966, after which 60,000 of its residents were forcibly removed.) In his 2005 rough draft for District 9, the short film Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp didn't foreground the political elements. But while writing the feature script with Terri Tatchell, he became aware "that all these very serious topics about racism and xenophobia and segregation would start to shine through the science-fiction-esque veneer," he says. "I had to be very careful that I didn't get too close to these serious topics with a film that's mostly a summer thrill ride." He told himself, "It's your first film. Use it as satire. Chill out."

Read the full review here :

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1916009,00.html

GodofJoyAugust 16, 2009 6:43 PM

While I agree with most of what you are saying, I also agree with Rhythm-X that throwing Emmerich at it is "a low blow".

While it is imperfect, I feel it is still is one of the better sci-fi actioneers of the past few years. To talk about this from the perspective of someone who's been anticipating something different based on the trailer seems unfair to the film and filmmakers itself as generally the trailers are made by the marketing staff to tease and titillate, not to give any real indication of what's going to happen in the theatre after the lights go down.

Agent OrangeAugust 16, 2009 9:11 PM

"Yet, as a thematic sci-fi piece, it surrenders to a shoot-em-up action that simply ignores the Apartheid allegory so painstakingly established."

I don't believe for one second that Blomkamp or Jackson "surrendered" to anything, in fact I'm sure everyone involved was itching (if not salivating) to pull off some amazing action set pieces worthy of a summer blockbuster. Luckily these "shoot-em-up" set pieces held intense dramatic consequence so were not entirely frivolous.

However, your issue brings to mind something interesting. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was the fact that the aliens had the most insane weaponry and never used it. I'm sure people saw this as a flaw in the film's logic, but throughout history subjugated peoples rarely strike out against their oppressors even though their numbers are usually greater.

So you see, Blomkamp was at least smart enough to not go the Spartacus route and stage an entire alien uprising. That WOULD have been a surrender, whereas showing a small revolt by two characters was absolutely not.

Ben UmsteadAugust 16, 2009 10:08 PM

One thing I find kind of funny, is that marketing folks actually wanted to sell it as a thoughtful, hard sci-fi film. These were marketing folks!

And just to be clear, Kurt, in this all or nothing world, your opinion on the movie doesn't come off as "hate" to me. Not in the least. It is a complex, multi-faceted reaction and one I appreciate far more than "loved it" or "hated it."
I was close to having the same reaction to the film as you, and it still might gravitate towards that as the days go by.

Yet for right now I have a smile on my face for several reasons. I've chosen to champion the film because it chooses to do many things a little differently and gets away with it under a wide studio release. For this film to make $37 million opening weekend in the states, with no stars, subtitles and clear, heavy, allegory is a beautiful thing, to where perhaps the studios will look a little differently on how to budget and how to treat filmmakers. A possible tide turning? That might be wishful thinking, but I'd like to think the success of District 9 will do something good for the next generation of filmmakers.

Todd BrownAugust 16, 2009 10:21 PM

Kurt, on your comment about the fuel-transformation feeling like bad science, I'd actually disagree there. I think it's entirely consistent with what we know of the technology presented. If the alien tech is all biologically based and triggered - as it very clearly is - then it makes perfect sense that whatever fuels and drives it could - and should - be a pretty powerful genetic modifier.

Kurt HalfyardAugust 17, 2009 1:54 AM

There was a Sci-Fi production of Lathe of Heaven with David Straithairn in it that was watchable, certiainly, but hardly capital "G" great.

deathwithabeardAugust 17, 2009 2:38 AM

A friend of mine asked what I had thought of the movie while we were leaving the theatre after it was finished. I told him that I thought it was "high concept" but not "high science fiction". In this, it left me disappointed because, like you, I had wanted something else, what I had wanted was hard science fiction. But I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway. Smartly repackaged sci-fi blockbuster.

Even though the film hadn't fulfilled its promise for truly powerful filmmaking, I was glad when it backed off the allegorical elements. Just because you can say something loudly doesn't make it particularly insightful or well observed. Only more of the usual platitudes.

Anyway--great review. Great criticisms against the movie balanced with its achievements.

anton_esAugust 17, 2009 12:09 PM

i agree with the review. the movie is still awesome in its own right. I'm glad they decided to make it "light" since I don't yet trust in blokamps ability to pull off "hard scifi"

oldnikAugust 17, 2009 1:56 PM

For a first time effort that doesn't go out of it's way to dumb down for the blockbuster popcorn crowd, I thought it was pretty damn good!
When we've had to put up with the dross of ID4/Transformers/etc... treating us like brain dead seat filler, I don't think we can complain too much about D9, sure the Bio-fuel issue and the post aparthied racism issues being erased back to the 80's can be highlighted, but were we expecting Solaris/Stalker/Fountain style high concept sci-fi?
I particularly enjoyed the high octance action movie metamorphosis halfway thru, but maybe that's just me, caught between two stools.
We all love being seduced by the big blockbusters, in a hope that it will truly knock us for 6 like it used to do when we were kids (Star Wars/Close Encounters/Jaws) but in recent times we've left feeling cheated so so many times, atleast this time we all enjoyed D9 and left the cinema on a high, a buzz with questions and what if's and not WTF did I pay to see that for!!!
Possible sequel? (only kidding :-) )

lauriemannAugust 17, 2009 2:27 PM

Oldnik, District 9 has sequel written all over it. Especially after this weekend. There are many unanswered questions, such as will "Christopher" return? Can the "changeling" be changed back? Why did only 2 or 3 of the prawns seem to have any smarts, and the smart ones were so much smarter than anyone else? Since they also seemed to be stronger than humans, why did they let themselves stay incarcerated?

The satire on "Nigerian scams" was the funniest bit in the whole movie, and I have the feeling most of it flew far over the heads of much of the audience I was with. It was interesting that I was not the oldest person in the audience by a long shot. This movie seemed to draw in people who wanted to see something more than a mindless action flick.

Rhythm-XAugust 17, 2009 5:41 PM

"Rhythm, you are our smartest commenter on the site."

That's highly debatable. But thanks.

"I skipped G.I. Joe too because I didn’t want a ‘fun turn your brain off’ Sommers-wankfest."

I wouldn't dream of lumping Sommers' GI JOE in with Bay's TRANSFORMERS - and I say this as someone who's hated ALL of Sommers' other movies that I've seen. GI JOE is a lot of dumb fun - not "turn your brain off" fun. "Turn your brain off fun" is usually what stupid people say to justify the garbage they like - anyone who likes to "turn their brain off" to watch movies probably doesn't turn their brain on very often in the first place. My brain enjoyed GI JOE for what it was and didn't care that it wasn't something it was never intended to be. It's a faithful adaptation of a very dumb, silly cartoon. To make it not be dumb and silly would undermine the faithfulness and the point of the whole excercise. It's the perfect match of subject matter and director that TRANSFORMERS should have been but wasn't.

Kurt HalfyardAugust 17, 2009 5:41 PM

I heard one comment that the 'we'll be back in 3 years' was about the time of a production schedule on a blockbuster. Clever.

Matt GambleAugust 19, 2009 12:06 AM

But why the ‘quick hand’ change, then some teeth and stuff, then convenient delay for the plot to kick in.

Well his hand was injured, and since his immune system would be kicking in to repair those damaged cells, it makes sense that the alien DNA would show up there first. Their probably is a decent science explanation for the hair and nails but to me it seemed to be an obvious homage to Brundle Fly, which is clearly one of the early influences on the look of the prawns.

To make it not be dumb and silly would undermine the faithfulness and the point of the whole excercise.

I keep hearing this about GI Joe and I wonder if the people who claim this have seen the Warren Ellis animated film that came out earlier this year. It is a serious take on GI Joe and it ends up being both faithful while being quite inventive and farm from the hammy cartoon series it is based on.