District 9

Neil Blomkamp

4/10 (turning what should have been a powerful, healing premise into an insipid gorefest)

If anyone needed it, here is more proof that the “Academy” doesn’t have anything to do with recognizing good cinema. In the newly-expanded Best Picture category, “District 9” was chosen as one of the 10 top films of 2009. It joined such other award-worthy fare as “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Avatar,” “A Serious Man,” and “Up in the Air.” Worst yet, out of all of these decidedly mediocre films, the best film of the year, “Drag Me to Hell,” wasn’t even offered one of the newly-cheapened nominations.

The first 20 minutes starts very promisingly with a montage of various newscasts, interviews and voiceovers explaining the premise: apparently benign aliens have essentially crash-landed around Johannesburg and are stranded without any resources on Earth. What starts as a typical sci-fi exploration quickly turns to pertinent moral, political and racial themes as we learn that the refugees are becoming a drain on the local economy, with South African citizens and government becoming more resentful every day. At the end of the preamble, we learn that the government has had to construct a refugee camp (the titular “District 9”) in which to house and feed all of the unwanted aliens. Due to their helpless nature, their very existence sparks waves of controversy and hostility instead of the scientific fascination that you might expect when coming into contact with the first known alien civilization.

Is that interesting enough for you? It was for me. Unfortunately, such an engrossing premise makes all the more unforgiveable what comes after, when the last 90 minutes of the film becomes essentially a shoot-em-up sci-fi gore-fest with about as profound of moral and philosophical inquiry as you’d find digging around in a sandbox. It’s as if Blomkamp came up with this exceedingly provocative idea but decided he didn’t (or was too stupid to) know what to do with it, so he just gave up.

There were many moments to provide such empathetic insight as well, chiefly provided by the main character Wikus (Sharlto Copley), who (through plot contrivances too convoluted to fully explain here) is slowly turning into one of the “prawns,” as they’re called. What better opportunity to show the lone human sympathizing with the plight of these strange-looking, unfortunate others? Instead, in one of the climactic scenes we get him stealing his alien friend’s spacecraft in order to fuck over the entire refugee population just to try and find a cure for his condition, because that’s how little he can stand to look like one of those disgusting alien fucks. Pretty heartwarming, eh?

In fact, the entire xenophobic concept of the movie, combined with the conspicuous absence of anything even approaching an honest discussion of the myriad themes and dilemmas raised by such circumstances, actually makes the film itself appear xenophobic. Why else would it glorify and exploit the most superficial aspects of the situation without taking even one moment to delve into the broader implications? Why else would it give us a “hero” who refuses to help the aliens at all (despite being thrown irrevocably in with their lot), until the very end when all of his solo efforts have failed miserably and the only way he’ll have a chance is with their help? What message is this actually sending?

And here it actually reminds one of the other nominee in its group, “The Hurt Locker,” which would amazingly go on to win the Best Picture award. Both are well-executed action movies (“Hurt” being better in this respect than “District”) that ostensibly treat some very heavy themes. And both abdicate all semblance of responsibility in their execution, opting instead for the most superficial and action-oriented treatments possible. Both end up seeming more racist and callous in the end, despite the fact that they are probably supposed to raise compassion and awareness.

That’s about all the time I need to waste on this movie. It gets points for its premise, and for pretty good camera work and decent action sequences. Otherwise, it’s a shameless waste of earth’s resources to have been produced at all, and anyone who thinks it was one of the 10 best films of 2009 should be ashamed of themselves.

18 December 2010

Other reviews for “District”


4 Responses to “District 9”

  1. I thought that District 9 was good the first time I saw it. A gore fest, yes, but good nonetheless. The second time I saw it, I was not as crazy about it. The suspense of not knowing where it will go is the one thing that makes it a really good movie. Once you know, it’s just a lot of violence. I disagree that the lead character makes the movie itself xenophobic. Unlike other “We’re sorry about imperialism” movies, the lead character is a part of the problem, not part of the solution. Just because the camera is on him all of the time does not make him even remotely a good guy. In fact, I would say that he starts out as a primary antagonist, and never reaches the point of being a protagonist, just a self-serving asshole in a really weird situation – forced to work with people he doesn’t like, in order to survive. And that is why it’s a good movie.

    • I see your point, and I want to be clear that my main criticism of the movie is not its xenophobia but that it had the potential to be so much more than an action-packed gorefest. The first 20 minutes raise all sorts of moral, political, and existential questions without ever addressing them afterward. After reading your comment I have rethought the whole xenophobia aspect, and I tend to agree with you that the main character isn’t meant to be very sympathetic. I suppose that makes the movie more misanthropic than xenophobic, eh? 🙂

      In any case, thanks much for reading and contributing. I look forward to seeing more of your thoughts on my reviews.

  2. Umm, at the risk of stating the obvious, isn’t this movie an allegory about Aparteid in South Africa?

    Wikus is a petty civil servant who only discovers the horrors being meted out to the ghettoised aliens once he becomes ‘contaminated’ and starts to turn into one of them. A bit like a modern version of The Watermelon Man. Although Wikus is a bit of a creep, he does start to become a sympathetic character once he sees the brutality and empathises with the Aliens. And as for only siding with them at the end once he realises he needs their help, isn’t that kind of what the white regime did in SA, once they realised they need Mandela to stop the country exploding? And in the end, Wikus becomes an alien, to me quite a powerful statement, while the Aliens (or at least one of them) find their means of escape from the stupidly brutal humans.

    All in all an underated, a bit gory in places, but one that deserves more than 4/10. In my opinion.

    • Thanks for the comment. I think for North-Americans the Apartheid analogy is not as evident, so I appreciate you bringing it up. It’s interesting to think of it in those terms, though in my opinion the likeness in the two scenarios deteriorates by the end.

      To be sure, “District 9” was NOT underrated in the U.S. It was nominated for Best Picture and is even today considered one of the best sci-fi movies of the new millennium. 4/10 was undoubtedly too harsh a grade, and in hindsight I actually like the movie more for not having a traditionally likeable protagonist (and one who actually loses in the end. . . rather subversive).

      But I still think Blomkamp mostly drops the ball on discussing these racial/xenophobic themes in lieu of generic sci-fi gore. Perhaps it was too subtle for me and I could have used a more heavy-handed treatment, say like “Snowpiercer,” which I consider about as subtle as a smack in the face (my main complaint about that movie actually).

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