Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Since I walked out of the theatre yesterday afternoon, I've done a great of thinking about this movie, so the very least I can say about it is that it is thought-provoking. However, I don't believe I am thinking about the things the movie's creators wanted me to think about. Directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp, the movie has tremendous aspirations of becoming a classic and tries ridiculously hard to achieve that goal, but the stress of trying is readily apparent, and the movie ends up falling short. Instead, I find District 9 to be somewhat thin, a worthy first effort to be sure, but with gaping holes that wear away at the Theme of Overwhelming Importance that seems to be filling the minds of viewers and reviewers alike.

The movie begins as a false documentary regarding the events that surrounded an attempt to move 1.8 million aliens (called "the prawn") from one containment area to another. To provide the background to the events that we are going to see unfold, the documentary recounts the history of the prawn, including their arrival in 1982 in a giant ship that hovered stationary over Johannesburg, its holds filled with sick and filthy prawn with no apparent leadership. The prawn are brought to camps that rapidly become slums, and the prawns, separated not only by their different culture and language, but their extremely alien appearance, rapidly become the lowest class of citizens. These are not the aliens of Alien Nation who at least appear somewhat human; these look walking arthropods and they speak in a language that human mouths can't possibly duplicate (somehow, though, humans are eventually able to understand them without translation—and they understand humans). Criminals prey on the prawn, especially because of their weapons, weapons that appear strangely powerful but can only be used by the prawn because of some kind of DNA lock. The film then alternates back and forth between the documentary format and a sort of third-person omniscient point-of-view, causing the viewer to see events that the documentary crew has no access to. Yet the movie always returns to the documentary narrative style, especially when it feels that its ethical points are not being made clearly enough.

And yet it would take someone with the emotional maturity of a brick not to get the point District 9 tries to hammer home. The allegory is obvious, especially couched as it is in South Africa: people, both as individuals and a culture, have a terrible capacity to treat anything different from themselves with contempt and prejudice. Even those previously mistreated are not above inflicting the same horrible actions on a newly discovered class that is lower than themselves. It's not a subtle observation, and District 9 does not play it out subtly. At the same time, however, it offers only one solution for the problem of prejudice and fear of the unknown, instead harping on repeated instances of abuse and prejudice and human foibles until it can no longer.

Meet Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a mid-level manager appointed by the head of a major multi-national (named MNU) to lead the effort to evict the prawns from their current camp to one hundreds of kilometers distant where they can no longer instill fear into the people of Johannesburg. Van der Merwe is competent in his company's exploitation of the prawns, obviously familiar with the laws that govern their living space and their interaction with humans. But it becomes clear that he has been given the job because he is too stupid to fail; he has the compassion and ethical maturity of office furniture. Sent into the camp to give the prawns 24-hour notice of their eviction and their signatures on a form, he satisfies himself at one point with the blood of a prawn on the form when it resists too hard and van der Merwe's accompanying guard enacts his displeasure. We look on in horror as he uncovers a nest and gleefully shows the documentary crew how the larval prawns scream when their nutrients are pulled from them and how they make popping sounds as they are set on fire. In many ways, van der Merwe is The Office's Michael Scott sent out for National Guard training. And just like Scott, it is sometimes difficult to watch just how bumbling van der Merwe is, especially since his ineptitude leads to the death of presumably innocent sentients.

And then the movie pounces; van der Merwe's ineptitude causes him to be exposed to an unknown fluid and within hours he is in the hospital, his left arm now the left arm of a prawn and the rest of his humanity slowly leeching away. Immediately the multinational he works for springs into action: they now have a creature with a balance of human and prawn DNA, and the weapons they have been unable to understand suddenly show their awesome power in the tortured hands of van der Merwe. We are given scenes of the experiment chambers of the multinational, filled with rotting prawn corpses, and the documentary tells us that MNU is mostly interested in the prawn not for humanitarian reasons but for the potential weapon applications that they carry. Van der Merwe's father-in-law makes the fateful decision to kill him and use his half-human, half-prawn parts to backwards-engineer the weapons. Terrified, van der Merwe escapes to the only place he can seek safety—District 9.

As he wanders the camp, van der Merwe runs afoul of the gangsters there taking advantage of the prawns, and who have come to believe that eating prawn meat gives the power of the prawn to the eater. Why this story is believed is never really clear since the prawn are loathsome, comedic figures most of the time and only fearful at best when they are drunk and rioting. They have been portrayed as horrible dregs and leeches on society, so I'm not sure what potency one could expect. So of course the Nigerians want to eat van der Merwe's arm. As he escapes from them, he stumbles over the smartest prawn we get to see, one who had a plan for the prawns beyond subsisting on human forbearance. It is this prawn, named Christopher Johnson, who was responsible for the fluid that has changed van der Merwe and who, with a little help from van der Merwe, can get him to the medical facilities on the mother ship and change him back to human. Van der Merwe agrees to help Johnson and his child, but only because it will heal van der Merwe of his condition.

And then the movie falls apart, becoming an extended action sequence with humans pursuing van der Merwe and Johnson. As they fight their way into and out of Johannesburg and then across District 9, the movie makes two important plot points: first, Johnson (of course) is the only "person" we see who shows any dismay at the torture and death of the prawn and second, van der Merwe finally stops acting selfishly (maybe) and comes to Johnson's defense when he is captured and in the hands of particularly vile military forces, the leader of which gloats that he is paid to do a job he already loves, killing prawn as gruesomely as possible. But even the rescue could be ascribed to ulterior motives for van der Merwe; if Johnson dies, there really is no hope of van der Merwe returning to normalcy at all. And these two nuggets of plot advancement are buried in the extended chase scene, where buildings and people are blown up indiscriminately in buckets and sprays of gore.

So the massive allegory that the first half of the movie sets up arrives at only one conclusion for resolving the hideous prejudice it describes: become the alien. I suppose this is meant to be an example of practicing empathy but it is taken to extremes and the movie actually offers no hint as to whether this actually resolves anything. Instead it ends with an amazingly clichéd scene, attempting to once more yank on the heartstrings of its viewers in an attempt to …motivate them? I'm not really sure. Any effort that the movie has made to be socially relevant has been destroyed by the extended violence.

Only one character is remotely developed in the course of the movie, that of van der Merwe. I give the writers credit; he is a fairly realistic character that is difficult to like and Copley plays him well. But by the end of the movie, I really still do not like him very much, felling only sympathy for the situation he finds himself in. He makes no strides towards resolving his own horrible prejudice, does nothing to act out against the oppressors. The documentary returns to make it clear that the fate of van der Merwe spurs other people to act out on their conscience, and the plans of MNU are uncovered. But the documentary also makes it clear that the prawns are really not treated any differently as a result. As a result, as the movie concludes, it still feels tremendously unresolved, but only because it has made such great effort to paint the allegory in the first place. Unfortunately, the writers spent so much time making their allegory, part of the practical framework of the movie falls apart: the events of the movie make it clear that the action that started the whole crisis—van der Merwe's exposure to the fluid—never had to happen, that the prawns could have left long before Johnson began to make the effort. It's clear that the allegory is where all the weight of the movie resides and everything must serve that message, even if it s incomplete and diffused beyond recognition by the stereotypical action sequences.

I've read and seen viewers who talk about how this movie shows the potential that science fiction has in cinema, how it can be used to make broad sweeping observations about the nature of being human or some such. I see District 9 trying to make those kinds of observations, but I also see it failing in the end, as it resorts to the clichés that have marked science fiction in movies for the past few decades, since Star Wars. It turns out that District 9 does only one real science fiction-y thing that has been missing in movies all along: it presents a culture and race so alien as to be nearly unidentifiable. Science fiction series have the advantage of being able to develop these cultures over time and yet generally fall into their own tropes of using humans with facial deformities as their aliens. Finally, the mystery and possibility of what else is Out There has been shown on a movie screen, and District 9's creators are fairly smart to try to make this otherness into a point about humanity. It's a shame that the movie fails to deliver on the insight such a step forward as the prawns represent.

I'm torn on whether or not to recommend District 9. The vast majority of reviews claim this is a great movie, and I can see the potential for greatness. It is definitely not for the squeamish, and if you have any doubts, I think you could get away with not seeing it. But as an experiment in science fiction cinema, simultaneously hinting at the potential while choking on the clichés that have mired the genre, it is a fascinating work. It offers hope for the future of the genre, especially since the acclaim is so loud. I just hope that other creators using this as a guide see the potential in the genre rather than some sort of value in repeating the mistakes of past films.

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