District 9: Thumbs Down
By Luke Pals
August 14, 2009
Editor's note: Since District 9 is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer, we thought it only made sense to bring you two reviews. Check out Brett McCracken's review here—his take is slightly different than Luke's.
Months ago in Los Angeles, bench advertisements appeared near bus stops, with intimidating alien silhouettes circled and crossed out in red, stating “Humans Only” or “Report all Aliens.” (Hollywood likes to advertise to itself.) Our progressive intuitions might tell us that District 9 is an important movie. Based on his love of science fiction and experiences growing up in Jo'burg, South Africa, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature is an attempt to be something like Cronenberg’s The Flyand the Alien franchise post-Ridley Scott, in a context of social justice.
Unfortunately, the expectations laid by the apartheid marketing angle reveal a flair for exploitation, because the director seems to be more comfortable with weapons and special effects than any social or moral issue … like Starship Troopers. Or, like the video-game “Halo,” the movie version of which Blomkamp was supposed to direct before it got postponed.
The apartheid elements are a backdrop, and the frenetic, video-game pace races over the multiple logic problems in the story. The documentary-styled montage of interview and news reporting sets the stage efficiently, but also keeps us distant from both the humans and the aliens, who are pejoratively named “prawns.” Their mother ship hovers over the slum, a mystery to humans and seemingly to the aliens themselves. More importantly for the humans, the aliens possess mysterious weapons which only seem to work in alien hands. The villain in the story is the weapons-research corporation MNU (Multi-National United), who is also charged with moving the slum 200 kilometers away from Jo’burg.
Enter MNU’s corporate lackey, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is chosen to get “signatures” on 24-hour “eviction notices” from the aliens who have been living in squalor for the past two decades. The jittery and excitable Wikus rises to the challenge of this very meaningless and dangerous task (his father-in-law runs MNU). He knows his factoids about the aliens, but he also impulsively delights in their exploitation and humiliation, as long as it stays within the laws. While investigating a shack for illegal weapons, he accidentally sprays himself with a fluid that makes him sick. Biological changes start to take place, changes that draw the attention of the weapons research team, who discover that Wikus’ special qualities make the weapons work. They decide to take him apart, literally, which he overhears on the operating table (just one of the many logic foibles), so he fights off the surgeons and escapes, a freak of nature, to District 9.
Wikus’ time in the slum, negotiating with and learning from a smart alien, negotiating and fighting off the Nigerian gangsters and finally the MNU operatives is the best part of the story. The aliens can help Wikus return to his human state with medical technology on board the ship, but they can’t get to the mother ship without the fluid Wikus confiscated. Wikus and the smart alien—who he suddenly starts to call Christopher—prove to be good team, but Wikus’ impulsive nature takes over again and he almost ruins everything the smart alien and his son have worked so long to realize.
From an online interview by Made in Hollywood, Blomkamp says he intended the aliens to be something we feel for and feel frightened by—"like something you would not want to sit next to on a bus." But that is a severe understatement. There is nothing good, or even characterized, about this race of alien; even the sensitive folks speaking of “alien rights," collaged in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, cannot explain a single specific quality to spark the audience’s empathy for the alien; we don’t know what they are called in their own language.
Blomkamp only garners a fast and superficial impression of sympathy at their general mistreatment and slum environment. They have no specific culture, no music, no games, no social organization or hierarchy of any kind. They are entirely animalistic and jump around like apes when excited. This is the main failure of the movie—the aliens really have no outlet for their own voice in the narrative, which rings a little too much like the exploitation the narrative is trying to criticize. They are not even capable of ruling their own slum, despite their superior weapons technology: Nigerian gangsters make money selling them raw meat and bribe their weapons away with cat food. So don’t go to District 9 expecting a sci-fi thriller with any political elements or insight. Despite the highway robbery of science fiction plot devices from better movies of yore, one thing District 9 succeeds in doing well is preparing a sequel; this movie is really only half a story, with a likeable hero, human or “prawn.”
If all you want is a new sci-fi freakshow shoot-‘em-up in a different city, you could do worse. District 9 is far more interesting than 2008’s Cloverfield, which was just a nail-biting chase movie with monsters. Both movies are B-movies with A-list marketing. Maybe that’s all it takes to inspire the critical “acclaim” it has already received.