Monday, August 17, 2009
With its lack of name stars and exotic pedigree, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 feels more like late-summer counter-programming than just another blockbuster epic. Certainly, the fact that it lacks a Burger King tie-in and doesn’t begin with the depressing note, “Based on the Hasbro toys,” is enough to make District 9 appear downright mature and thoughtful when compared with the rest of the movies crowding the multiplex at the moment.
The film’s premise is even a bit of a novelty. An alien ship appears above Johannesburg (that’s right, screw you, New York, Paris, London—it’s time for the rest of the world to get in on the alien invasion action), but instead of unleashing doom upon the puny Earthlings, it just floats like a heavy cloud until a search party enters and discovers a malnourished race of anthropomorphic bug-things henceforth known derogatorily as Prawns. The creatures are shipped to the planet’s surface and put into overcrowded slum camps, managed by a corporation with the laughably ominous name Multi-National United.
Yes, this is a different spin on the usual first-contact story, but it’s hard to give credit for cleverness when you consider the idea’s unimaginative execution. Perhaps the reason no one has attempted this idea before is because it actually doesn’t make a lot of sense—how could an alien race travel across the galaxy and yet find themselves enslaved by humanity’s inferior technology? Blomkamp throws in a vague explanation about how the alien leaders might have died due to some disease, leaving only the unorganized worker drones, but considering the aliens can still control their ship and use their weapons, this sounds suspiciously like a half-assed justification for the apartheid allegory which is really the film’s hook.
In that case, it’s a wonder that the film actually has so little to say about racism or apartheid. If there's a purpose to all of this, it lies in the transformation of the film’s protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling white bureaucrat cheerfully in denial over the suffering his actions are causing to these creatures. After being placed in charge of emptying out the titular slum of District 9 and transferring the aliens to District 10 (basically a concentration camp, he later admits), events force van der Merwe to sympathize with the Prawns as he is pushed closer to their plight.
Still, if Blomkamp is attempting some sort of homily on racial understanding, then he would have been wise to avoid dubious caricatures like the band of voodoo-loving tribal Nigerian gangsters—all overplayed with leering menace—who contribute a bit of stock villainy to the proceedings, collecting alien weaponry in the slums while dealing cat food to the Prawns (the substance is the equivalent of crack in these intergalactic ghettos). For that matter, there is hardly much more complexity in the portrayal of the alien creatures, most of whom are treated disdainfully as dim-witted, self-defeating savages. At one point, we even see a Prawn wearing a beanie, just so we don’t confuse him with Einstein, I suppose.
The film is sunk by this lack of insight and imagination. Surely a more rich and complicated world than what Blomkamp creates can be derived from such a loaded premise. Instead, we get a flat and underdeveloped protagonist surrounded by peripheral characters so generic as to be almost unnoticeable. A consortium of sinister scientists, soldiers, government agents, and businessmen all shuffle through the narrative like a listless line of bogeymen too familiar to be frightening anymore. And by the end, the film has settled into a monotonous pattern of chase-fight-chase-fight that could suck the life out of any half-decent concept. It’s hard to develop a vivid cinematic world when you have to stop everything intermittently for some hot and heavy robo-suit combat, you know?
Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been beaten down by the onslaught of recent summer blockbusters that this weak movie appears so promising at first glance. Maybe critics—who for the most part have been fairly generous in their praise of District 9—are just happy to see some a major summer movie that actually draws on reality, instead of a fifteen-year-old boy’s fantasies of same. But with a pack of clichés threatening to carry the whole story off into the ether, real history is ultimately the only thing tethering this film to the ground. Unfortunately, Blomkamp brings up these references to apartheid not necessarily because he wants to speak to this subject, but rather because they lend an aura of significance to a story that otherwise has none. Yes, acknowledging the real world is a good thing, but the more important part is actually living in it.