District 9

There is a long history in science fiction of using the central conceit of the setup as an extended metaphor. Alien invasion, time travel and all the other major tropes that we’re used to can stand in for whatever theme the author or filmmaker can make work. Neill Blomkamp, the writer and director of District 9 was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and sets his story there. You don’t even need two guesses to get what this first contact story is standing in for.

Twenty years before the story starts, a giant alien ship appeared in the air above Johannesburg. It just hung there like a storm cloud, not communicating, not moving. Eventually, the government got up the nerve to send helicopters up there to cut through the hull. They found thousands of starving aliens, large tentacled beings with tremendous strength. They brought them all down in what was seen as a humanitarian move. It quickly turned sour and over the two intervening decades, the aliens or prawns as they are pejoratively called, because they kind of look like giant shrimp, are confined to a ghetto, where they pick through garbage and steal computer equipment.

After two decades of this the government has decided that it has had enough and is ready to move the prawns into large camps outside of the city limits. To lead the eviction process, they choose a mid level bureaucrat named Wikas Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copely. Wikas is a bit of a milquetoast who got the job because he’s married to the daughter of the head of the private company that handles alien affairs and that is secretly trying to unlock the puzzle of the alien weapons, which appear to be keyed to the prawns’ DNA. No humans can use them.

From a technical standpoint, this is a pretty good film. Blomkamp’s background is in computer animation and it shows. The CG aliens are flawlessly integraged into the live action film. The performances, especially Copely’s are pretty good. The camera jumps around in handheld, battlefield documentary type shots. This creates some very intense moments.

But there is something about District 9 that is off putting. It goes beyond the in your face violence and gore and the unremittingly bleak view of human nature. For one thing the film jumps among several styles. There are the handheld sections, where the lens frequently gets splattered with blood that looks like it was made to look like footage for a documentary. A lot of the backstory is given in face to face interviews with “experts” on the situation, most of whom don’t play any other part in the story. And then most of it, especially after the first third of the film is told in traditional narrative style. That jumping around is confusing and it pulls you out of the story. What’s more, for a film that presents itself as so realistic, there are a couple of very unlikely escapes.

District 9 is in the end an interesting failure. It takes more than attitude and gallons of fake blood to make a metaphor work.


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August 2009
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