District 9 (South Africa/New Zealand, 2009, Neil Bloomkamp)
District 9, an energetic and tantalizing sci-fi action flick, is being given a bit too much credit. Perhaps the films long list of admirers (and, yes, my name appears as a fan of said film. I like it, I really do. I just don't LOVE it, as so many here clearly do) shows us just how hungry audiences are for intelligent as well as exciting action flicks. The film is certainly a cut above your standard summer fare (say, The Transformers, a film to which it bears a passing but thankfully superficial similarity) but it remains several steps below standard bearers of the genre, such Cronenburg's The Fly, to which it is often compared. District 9 is vigourous and energetic film, and clearly has its heart in the right place, but not only does it come up a little lacking in the sense of humour department, but it also comes up a bit short in the depth and rigour departments, elements that are vital to any truly thought-provoking science fiction film.
By this point, I am going to assume that readers of this review are familiar with the film's premise, that an alien spacecraft appears suddenly 20 years ago and settles in over Johannesburg South Africa air space, provoking the curiousity of the entire planet, and that once humans breached the ship's hold to discover that there were thousands of ill and malnourished aliens cowering there, later determined to be "workers" not "leaders" so we decide to put these "worker" aliens into a slum, ever to be known as the District 9 of the title. Conditions in District 9 rapidly deteriorate, as the aliens--because of their tentacular faces soon to be known derisively as "prawns"--are treated as second class citizens, and popular opinion quickly turns against them as people decry their alien behaviour and lifestyles, and soon wonder when the aliens are going to leave, and what can we do with them in the meantime. It is in these passages that the film bristles with energy and intrigue, as first time director Bloomkamp, working from his own script, uses the faux documentary style to convey the pertinent information, moving from news footage to talking heads, from on the street interviews to captured footage of the aliens in action.
Entering into the discussion at this time is MNU, a multinational company who have won the contract to reassign the now 1.8 million aliens to new digs, while using the relocation as an excuse to capture contraband alien weaponry in order to figure out how to make use of it ourselves, which many feel is the real purpose of the relocation. Leading the job is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a fellow of limited wits who only got the job because he is married to the boss's daughter. When he accidently sprays himself with some alien gunk and begins a Kafka-esque transformation, his allegiance to the mission begins to shift, and the film suddenly alters course as we are taken more deeply into the alien reservation and encouraged to see life from their perspective. At this point the film becomes more clearly a statement about apartheid (though perhaps a statement made 20 years too late), but also is redolent with imagery and ideas that hint at a large purpose, to comment on the plight of the displaced, the refugee, global victims of all sorts who suffer because of all forms of political and economic oppression.
If only the film had really delved deeply into these ideas, District 9 might have really been something to behold. At this point the film shifts from its earlier documentary perspective into a more predictable and conventional action flick mode, and announces this choice by taking us inside the life to human-monickered Christopher Johnson and his loveable progeny, delivering shots of domestic life that the documentary filmmakers would have been unable to capture. This shift fractures the film to some extent, but had the filmmakers used the change to examine how human oppression affects the aliens by delving into how slum life affects their culture, values and beliefs, it would have been excusable. However, Bloomkamp settles for short circuiting a thoughtful approach to the matter by tugging at the heart strings instead. He does this by relying almost entirely upon the endearing qualities of the spunky and doe-eyed child of Christopher to pull us onside. It is certainly commendable that I empathized with the prawns, but it is to the film's discredit that I never really understood them, providing a gaping hole in the middle of this apparently thoughtful film that clearly aspires to meaningfulness. Squaring the circle of my complaints about the film is the problem of its rapid descent into a series of blow-em-up real good sequences that do little more than pander to the lower common denominator while mining familiar sci-fi action cliches.
I want to commend District 9 for being more than typical science fiction fare, but I was left wanting more from this film, wherein the filmmaker's unfortunate and rather lazy choices limit its potential, a film that promises much more than it can ultimately deliver.