District 9 (2009)

May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Sharlto Copley on the run in Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi epic "District 9"

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Produced by Peter Jackson

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Starring Sharlto Copley and Kenneth Nkosi

District 9 is so many different things. The plot is about a race of aliens whose ship stalls above Johannesburg, South Africa and whose inhabitants are shuttled down to earth and placed in an internment camp which is transformed over the next 20 years into a slum. The aliens resemble shrimp, or “prawns”, as the humans derogatorily refer to them.

The story begins when a bureaucratic airhead named Wikus (Sharlto Copley in a wonderfully arrogant, frantic and clueless performance) is given the job of managing the Prawns removal from their current encampment, where they’ve made something of a life for themselves, trading with local Nigerian gangsters for cat food (the prawns’ preferred source of nourishment) on down to the new District 10, which is further removed from humans. The aliens don’t take too kindly to this and some fight back in one way or another, leading to the naive Wikus succumbing to alien biotechnology and being forced to go on the run from his own people, with his family and friends disowning him and Wikus having no choice but to seek refuge with the prawns he so thoroughly discounted before.

There is a subplot about humans wanting to tap into the alien technology, as well as some minor interactions with Nigerian gangsters and some Alien day to day life, but ultimately this is an action movie concerning Wikus and a sympathic “prawn” named Christopher Johnson. Christopher Johnson is named as such because he grew up in District 9 and was, apparently, given a human name. He can be identified by his human red vest, a characteristic not shared by any other prawns. Christopher also has an adorable son who is cute by any standard.

District 9 is attempting to be an ultra-serious sci-fi film, a tongue in cheek commentary on apartheid and racism, a unique, thrilling action movie, a mockumentary (the beginning of the film looks like a real documentary with realistic looking interviews of intellectual types discussing the history of the prawns’ initial appearance on earth and how they’ve settled in as inhabitants of our planet) and a loose adaptation of real life aspects of South Africa, such as protagonist Sharlto Copley’s character’s name surname, van der Merwe, which is a common white South African or Dutch surname. There are also allusions to other real life facts, like the actual District 6 where black Africans were moved during Apartheid and the alien language involving tongue clicks, which is part of the real life African Bantu language. In these respects, the film is very observant and almost brilliant. The problem is that each aspect is skirted as part of a smorgasborg of genre styles and atmospheric changes in the story which turn on dimes.

On top of this, in a bold move that I’m not sure quite works, none of the characters are likable, making it hard to care about anyone. Regardless of how the humans treat the so-called Prawns, the prawns themselves act like animals, despite their advanced technology. They have powerful blaster guns that only work when Prawn DNA touches them and their ships are obviously more powerful since they traveled to earth. And yet the fighting is nearly equal. The prawns also seem resistant to using their own technology to their benefit. This is illogical by any standard and feels like a convenient plot contrivance. The finale is also thrilling in a conventional sense, with some expertly photographed action sequences and nearly seamless CGI work throughout the movie, but much of it rings hollow.

The film can’t decide what genre its in, resulting in the overall feeling of the film coming across as schizophrenic and while certainly cool and different, perhaps not the transcending sci-fi opera it intended itself to be.

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§ 2 Responses to District 9 (2009)

  • rhodri89 says:

    Why do you think a film needs to decide what genre it’s in?

    • I don’t think it necessarily has to “decide” its genre, but I do think there should be some clarity about the style. It’s very hard to pull off multiple aesthetic styles in one story and most films fail when they try to give a broad experience because there’s only so much you can do within a two hours run time. However, in the case of District 9, it felt like I was watching 3 separate movies- the beginning faux documentary, the middle section social commentary and the final act being an flat out action movie and it felt like the film makers were trying to please separate audience groups with one product. I think one reason the film ended the way it did, aside from setting up potential sequels, is because as far as acceptable run times go for non-established franchises with zero big name actors its too risky to make a 2 1/2- 3 hour theatrical cut, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Blomkamp was pressured by producers into fitting in a bunch of stuff that would have worked wonderfully in different versions of the script into one conglomerate draft for shooting. It’s still a unique, thrilling and intelligent sci-fi film, social commentary and action movie, but each aspect suffered a little bit for Blomkamp’s entire vision. That’s all I’m saying. And sometimes genre mash ups work. Just look at Pulp Fiction. It in no way fits into any genre-archetypes and you could pick it apart as exploitation, gangster, high concept, cerebral, etc. but again Pulp Fiction is in a class all by itself. Nothing comes close to what Pulp Fiction achieved so its an exception and there aren’t many films that can prove the rule wrong.

      Just wait until Cowboys and Aliens comes out later this summer and see how truly successful the genre mashing is in that film. I’m slightly skeptical. Because you have to sacrifice something on either end to make the other style work effectively, no matt what the genre mash-up is.

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