by TOM NIXON
Destined to become a bit of a cult classic, District 9 is one of the year’s stronger genre pictures; a reworking of Alien Nation which tackles themes of intolerance, immigration, police brutality, the “greater good,” the media’s limitations, physical metamorphosis, and the pros and cons of technology, all whilst retaining a strong sense of its place in the sci-fi canon. Rescued from a mothership which appeared above Johannesburg 20 years previous, a horde of creatures known by the derogatory term “prawns” now occupy a slum by the name of District 9 policed by powerful human weapon developers Multinational United (MNU), and the humans across the border are becoming increasingly hostile towards their seemingly primitive and dangerous neighbors. An eviction plan is set to be implemented by the MNU, led by protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), intended to relocate the aliens to a more isolated area outside the city (though acquisition of their exceptionally powerful weapons turns out to be the primary agenda).
Director Neill Blomkamp employs impressive documentary-realism to inhabit the sprawling, junk-scattered disorder of the district, and there’s surprising restraint used in establishing the premise; there’s no talk by the humans of annihilating the aliens rather than merely evicting them, and there is plenty of footage of these aliens acting as dangerously as people say. The quite excellent first act is a pinpoint document of the beginnings of this eviction process, accompanied by a collage of interviews and media footage which bring out all the sticky ambiguities inherent not just in this kind of situation, but also in reporting on this kind of situation. Nothing is simple at this point; there are no good or bad guys, no easy answers. Copley’s Wikus is a fidgety, bristling portrait of clueless self-importance who cracks bad jokes like David Brent and lacks the presence he desperately seems to covet. Lines like “you’re going to go to a nice new city built specially for prawns, and we’re not even going to charge you” are totally in line with his convincingly pompous, condescending persona and so don’t feel half as excessive as they should.
If District 9 had managed to maintain its realism throughout then I’m not sure I’d have a single bone to pick, but when Wikus becomes a victim of his own foolishness and begins a quite horrendous transformation (my fellow CT writer Nir Shalev accurately compares it to Kafka’s Metamorphosis– whilst David Cronenberg is perhaps the primary cinematic reference point), the film does begin to compromise its considerable authenticity in favor of more conventional (and at times badly scripted) dramatization. The documentary trappings are frequently abandoned for the sake of dialogues humanizing or demonizing various characters, which feel a tad contrived and artificial in light of the context previously provided for us. The MNU director, intolerant gung-ho mercenary and the Nigerian gang leader (who exploits the prawns for profit and power) have rightly been described as cartoon supervillains, barely a step away from cackling to themselves as they put their evil plans into practice (“I can’t believe I’m paid to do this…. I love watching you prawns die” *action movie string crescendo*).
The prawn (hilariously named Christopher Johnson) who helps Wikus meanwhile is over-humanized; he loves his little son and every gesture hints at introspection, curiosity, pain, things so absent from any and all human characters. Making such a creature so undeniably relatable is admittedly quite incredible from a technical standpoint, but felt manipulative and reductive in a way that the first part of the film simply wasn’t. By making clear his agenda in this way, Blomkamp smooths over some of the complexities he has so brilliantly captured prior, although to his credit he does refuse to explicitly mention Apartheid of which this story is of course intentionally analogous- it aptly serves as a specter hovering over proceedings like the aliens’ ship (as, incidentally, do concentration camps), not encroaching but always there. The problem is that as soon as the thing starts taking sides we’re moved out of the firing line and into the realm of passive moviegoer, our allegiances spoon-fed for us. Can’t have it both ways; either you realistically present this sticky mess of a situation or you dramatize, but in jumping from one to the other the former feels cheapened, the latter artificial.
The film may fail to be convincing at these moments, but it never stops entertaining on some level. I don’t resent it for its gratuitous referencing of sci-fi staples, as there are moments where those references are integrated seamlessly into the realism in a way that may well permanently enrich perspectives on a number of classics. I love the way the prawns and their district are rendered, with lovely little throwaway scenes like a brutal cockfight between two scorpion-like abominations, or the prawns scavenging in the trash and ecstatically guzzling down cans of their beloved cat food. Wikus’ transformation hurts to watch; there’s no reluctance on Copley’s part to capture the disgust, shame and re-configuration of the self that comes with this kind of body-horror, nor on Blomkamp’s to portray the way he’s been fundamentally corrupted in human eyes. There’s really a lot to love about District 9, and whilst I don’t think it really fulfills its considerable potential, there’s no doubt that at its best it simultaneously serves as one of the most engaging action movies of the year and a credible alternate reality rich with uneasy allegorical insights.
Other new releases this week: (500) Days of Summer, All About Steve, Extract, It Might Get Loud