District 9 is full of dazzling and promising ideas, but the filmmakers only allow them to partially break through an otherwise action-movie exterior. Up until the end of the first act, the possibilities for this film seemed endless and it sped along with high energy, gritty effects and skillful storytelling. But once the actual plot kicked in, the filmmakers settled on a trajectory that was safer than they initially promised.
Movie Review: District 9
By Matthew Huntley
August 25, 2009
The film starts out as a lively social commentary and bleak metaphor but slowly descends into a traditional action picture. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the action scenes are executed so well, but I would have preferred the filmmakers stayed their original course and fleshed out their higher concepts. That might have made District 9 a masterpiece. As it is, it's still very good.
What an intriguing idea for a movie: aliens have come to Earth and humans are containing them in a walled off section called District 9. Twenty-eight years ago, the aliens' mother ship parked above Johannesburg, South Africa, where it continued to hover. When humans made first contact, they found the aliens inside the ship to be malnourished and stumbling aimlessly. It seems they came to our planet seeking aid and the movie presents this as a realistic possibility. The film's events are told to us in flashback, much as a documentary news story, which the filmmakers cleverly use to bring us up to speed on the current situation instead of going for forced exposition.
We learn Humans lent their help to the creatures by providing them food, supplies and health care, but as time went by, District 9 grew too large to maintain. It was fenced off with barbed wire and quickly became militarized. Eventually, it turned into a polluted slum ridden with gangs, prostitutes and black market dealers. Soon, the aliens began rioting, looting and attacking people, which is where MNU (Multi-National United) came in, a billion-dollar organization that responded to the public outcry to move the aliens away from Johannesburg and into District 10, where the same problems would occur all over again, but at least they would be away from the city.
The man chosen to oversee the eviction project was Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a jolly but clumsy fellow too inexperienced for the job, but lucky for him he was the son in-law of MNU's president. The mission went awry after Wikus came upon a mysterious canister that exploded chemicals in his face, causing him to vomit and bleed a black substance. Wikus suspected the alien hiding the canister, Christopher, and his young son, were up to something, especially with all the human technology they had hanging up in their shack. After he finds out the truth, Christopher became Wikus' only hope.
For what, I cannot say. And if you want to be as surprised and enthralled by this movie as I was, you'll stop researching it until after you see it. Refrain from looking it up on IMDb or Wikipedia because studio has concocted an ingenious marketing campaign to build curiosity and intrigue. And for once, the trailer doesn't give away any crucial plot details. Surely director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson wanted to keep it a surprise. The film stems from Blomkamp's short film, Alive in Joburg, and he obviously sees parallels between District 9 and our own world. The movie has given him a creative outlet that's both emotional and entertaining.
It's interesting how the movie views the aliens. On one level, they're a species with highly advanced technology; on another, they're bottom-feeders given the nickname "prawns." They resemble overgrown insects, with oozy exoskeletons, antennae, beady eyes, and claws. They also speak their own language, although the movie doesn't explain how we came to understand it or how they came to understand English.
The look of the aliens may be uninspired, but their looks aren't important. What matters is they generate our sympathy and integrate with the narrative. Typically in alien movies, it's the creatures that wreak havoc, but this time it's the humans, and I found this aspect refreshing and brave. Blomkamp thoroughly convinces us this world is real and he shows a lot of contempt for human occupation and consumption. It's not tongue-in-cheek or self-aware; it's as startling and unsettling as any war picture or documentary about crimes against humanity.
This begs the question why the filmmakers eventually chose to go the standard action-movie route. Once the central conflict is established, the formula reveals itself, and even though the picture remains exciting and kinetic throughout, its ideas do not. It becomes another chase movie about uncovering the truth and fighting the bad guys. Once again, the enemy is the big bad corporation, along with a lone, testosterone-driven villain. To be fair, though, the way the corporation is depicted didn't seem too embellished, which is both sad and scary. I only wish the movie had spent more time on its social points instead of providing us the same chase scenes, shootouts and gore we've seen time and again.
Still, I'd rather have several ideas brought up and not seen all the way through than none brought up at all. The movie definitely delivers a rush and generates enough pathos to make us care about its outcome. The last shot, in particular, is one I will not soon forget.
Would I have preferred the movie to be more brainy than brawny? Absolutely, but I enjoyed the raw, rugged look of the film, the fast pace and the seamless special effects (which are all the more impressive when you consider most of the movie takes place in broad daylight). The film is obviously meant to emphasize what's wrong, or what could be wrong, with our current world, but instead of suggesting answers on how to deal with the underlying problems, it simply reminds us the problems are still there. I suppose that's enough to get us started on the solutions. Hopefully the real answers will come with District 10.