District 9 (South Africa/New Zealand, 2009, Neil Bloomkamp)
Just when you think you might be watching a unique and engaging scenerio become a fully developed treatment of its potential, District 9 gets stupid and then stupider and then even stupider. Totally squandering an initially intelligent premise, politically reactionary from the get-go but conceptually creative nonetheless, District 9 soon morphs into a The Fly, The Fugitive and RoboCop, in that order, with a little Escape From New York hood colour to boot. All the while trying to make good on a plot that gets so threadbare halfway through, one can only reckon that the film's producer reckoned the audience would simply stop caring and take it for being the excuse for action that it is.
In an attempt to stifle my vocal criticism of the CGI illusion of guts splattering against the camera lens, Max declared that it was essentially a video game. Out of the mouths of babes, his intention to defend the film notwithstanding. The failure of the narrative to congeal on its own terms is only outdone by the discombobulated motivation of the protagonist. This lacks coherence not because the unfortunate character is compelled to undergo so many terrible transformations. No, the absence of a meaningful psychological core to the man is due to the character being nothing more than a meat puppet for the ludicrous tale, which has the unmitigated gall to take on a moralistic air before the smoke clears.
This last aspect is what really pisses me off about District 9. Ostensibly an allegory about the plight of the refugee subjected to draconian xenophobia (complete with a quasi-Arabic soundtrack in case any WASP missed the righteous relevance for the world today), District 9 is at bedrock what my dear ol' dad would have called pre-fascist shit. Instead of uniting humanity through sheer collective awe and common purpose for peace, the arrival of the aliens does not alter the nature of humanity or the course of civilization in the slightest. It's concentration camp business-as-usual when you park your ship above our earth, you freaky crustaceans; don't say we didn't warn ya, why dontcha just go back where ya came from?
But even more offensive to me is the presentation of a massive population previously in possession of the most advanced technical knowledge reduced to lumpen proletarian ghetto barbarians. As if they would not as a society carry their higher intellectual ability into whatever challenge confronted them, however hostile and destabilizing. And not just their gizmo know-how; their kinship structures, their educational methods, their traditional ethics, their metaphysical concepts, etc. The film strips the aliens of any shared subjectivity whatsoever. They are wholly without community, culture, consciousness. Yet District 9 has the nerve to look upon these downtrodden souls as oppressed people and the film takes it upon itself to save them. To say this is patronizing speciesism in the film's fictitious future is to touch upon what is actually racist today about the film.
But wait. There is a single alien household in the shanty town that is positively personified. It contains a lone scientist-type who has lost his only nameless friend to police brutality and has assistance only from his young son, little more than a functional extension of himself. In short, he is a solitary figure. Miracle of miracles, he has cobbled together a lab that will enable him to fire up the trippy toys he needs to lead his tribe out of Egypt... blah blah blah. Of course, this is your run-of-the-mill liberal individualism at work yet again in movies; you know the line, drama demands attention to specific, concrete persons and doesn't work with social groups. And the deeper political ramification is just as standard, to deny the need for a broad-based resistance movement, a network of cells supporting an organized mass formation engaged in struggle. This is ideologically offputting in the extreme. But it hardly matters this time out because this would-be rebel alien is even more of a hollow character than the main human character; indeed, the former feels like nothing more than a plot device for the lame maneuvers of the latter.
Ben, here is my original take on the film