Reviews: District 9

A Smart, Creative Story with Fantastic Character Development

District 9 got a lot of hype around the time of its release for being an allegory for apartheid and racial segregation. I got interested as soon as I heard Peter Jackson was involved, but I didn't think it would be anything special. I expected it to be either a smart-but-underwhelming mockumentary or a big dumb action flick. Instead, I got a smart, startlingly powerful film with loads of action and character development.

The apartheid allegory isn't quite as emphasized as I had been led to believe; it stills shines through bright enough be seen, but not so brightly as to distract from the action. And oh yes, there is action. Thrilling, high-octane, edge-of-your-seat type stuff. The special effects are incredible, and I really appreciate the gritty, realistic edge that they applied to everything. Also, the camera work stood out to me. The combination of traditional cinematography and shaky, mockumentary style made for an experience that was both epic and visceral, and the transitions from one to another were positively seamless.

But the one thing about this film that really grabbed me by the throat and didn't let go was main protagonist Wikus van der Merwe's character development. Wikus is initially depicted as a goofy, annoying jerk with no empathy for the aliens - the kind of person I wouldn't have minded seeing get eaten or vaporized or something. But after he suffers a horrifying trauma, the story slowly closes in around his character, and we get to see him change. His interactions with the alien Christopher Johnson (who is himself a very endearing character) slowly reveal that he is capable of empathy and sacrifice. His transformation into a genuinely likable hero - and I do mean hero - is the strongest aspect of the movie, and must be seen to be believed.

While it's not quite as sophisticated as I had thought it would be, District 9 still has an extremely creative and original premise, well-developed characters, fantastic visuals, a very realstic edge, and a story that continually defied my expectations in the most ingenious ways possible. It earned an R-rating for its brutal violence and Wikus's many, many F-bombs, but there's no real gore or sexual content, which I appreciated. I could not recommend it any more highly.

half great, the other half, not so.

The first half of this movie, a mockumentary with big dollops of social satire on the side, is excellent. I also liked the body horror elements, which worked extremely well. My hope was that our protagonist would slowly realise the suffering of the "prawn" who hurt just as much as humans, but would be ultimately powerless to stop the banality of evil. Instead, the film becomes reliant on stock devices and overused action tropes. The most appalling was the absurd General Ripper Colonel, a character who was such a two dimensional asshole, it was numbingly obviously that he was going to end up with a spectacular karmic death. That's why I didn't really care when he did. The film did its action extremely well, and even with a comparatively tiny budget, this film somehow managed to make mecha fighting that far surpasses that of Transformers. But saying that, the action just seemed out of place in the context of the movie.

The problem was that the movie proposed a simple solution to save all the aliens in one go, which jarred with the anti-apartheid theme. There was no easy escape from real life apartheid, so I found this ending bittersweet. Ultimately, I wanted there to be a downer ending which more accurately reflected the hopelessness of it all, like in the apartheid in novel A dry White Season, and not some "happy" ending with heroes rising for freedom and slaughtering all the evil baddies like Braveheart.

An Utterly, Utterly Brilliant Film

District 9 is probably the greatest film of the year, if not the greatest of the decade. It's very well-written, very good-looking, and very engaging, both for the heart and for the brain. It's also probably the most realistic depiction of a science-fiction world I have ever seen on film, picturing a shiny, high-tech futuristic society just off-camera... with which it doesn't concern itself at all, instead focusing entirely on the filthy slums of South Africa where a destitute minority of space aliens live under the oppressive rule of the human majority and the film's resident mega corp, Multi-National United. Not that they make themselves very endearing.

The film leaves relatively little to the imagination when it comes to its world's inner workings. It's blatant in its profanity, unashamed in its brutal violence, and uncomfortable questions are thrust in your face whereas a "softer" science-fiction film would be content to let you ponder them safely after the show is over. This is what makes it so shockingly realistic, and that realism makes it terrifying. Because you know, you know, that in our world, our people would react in a nearly identical manner to such a situation, as long as no outside factors got involved (which they almost certainly would, but that's beside the point).

The director, Neill Blomkamp, has stated that a sequel is very likely. This may not be necessary, per se, but given the state in which we leave the film's world and the storu unfolding within it when the closing credits start rolling, I'll be the first to say that a sequel would be very satisfying. Our two protagonists, Wikus van der Merwe and Christopher Johnson, are both fascinatingly human characters (though, technically speaking, the title only applies to the former) whose predicaments are left largely unresolved, and I for one would be very interested to see the aftermath of their actions.

All in all, this is one for the books; you just can't miss it. From first frame to last, District 9 is a rush.

District 9, Part 2

Many critics only see the obscene abuses humanity heaps upon the prawn. They can only see the aliens as substitute for black townsfolk; they aren't: you can't deal with them as human and expect to keep your limbs.

It wouldn't work without Sharlto Copley (Wickus) and Jason Cope (Christopher). For all the imaginative range of the film, it works because it is the story of one man. Wickus is fighting to restore his humanity against terrible odds. The gritty realism of the film means terrible odds are just that: he fails. I could not have imagined how a man in alien mecha-armour could be as lonely, frail and pathetic as an aged beggar on the streets.

The film has flaws. The plot has holes. For example the "biological weapon", the mutagenic liquid, serves too many roles. It's hard enough swallowing the idea that the mutagen could also serve as fuel.

That said, this is the best kind of science fiction; it's not a slavish political allegory. This is a serious imagining of a situation we've never dealt with. Cheekily, it includes and debunks a certain style of academic interpretation within the movie itself through the talking heads, while the camera tells a different story.

It's difficult to understand Christopher. He's a prawn from a literal master race, but has little relationship with the masses of drones around him. If he had any power he would presumably instruct them that eating the tires of a human vehicle and then tearing the arm off a human trying to stop you is no way to make friends and a great way to ensure you stay in a hellish ghetto. Yet he's so moved by the medical experimentation lab he stops still in the middle of a gunfight.

The film has extraordinary realism. It looks as effortless as directing a mobile phone camera at something happening right in front of you. Alien devices have a compelling sense of being real objects, part of the same world as the dust and the huts.

The climax of the film had clutching my chair. Wikus takes command of a powerful alien mecha, but it's as forlorn and desperate as a liquor-store holdup gone wrong. It's here that Wikus shows us the best side of humanity in sacrificing himself for Christopher and his son, and Christopher finally realises even drones like these dangerous apes have something in them that is human.

District 9, Part 1

Ever seen a student film with more energy, honesty, excitement and invention than a whole summer of conventional blockbusters? Ever been heartbroken they didn't have the budget to do it properly? In District 9, they had the budget.

An alien ship has come to rest over Johannesburg. Once people cut their way in they find they have a million starving alien refugees on their hands. None of their technology will work for us.

The unlikely hero of the film is Wikus. He is the disposable frontman for a militarised conglomerate that is controlling the ghetto. Caught between hard men and squalid, dangerous and expensive aliens, I fully expected this irritating corporate shill to die, horribly, five minutes in. No, the hero is Wikus: his life as squirming underdog trying to live with impossibly conflicting roles has given him a fierce spark. Once he trips an alien biological weapon that starts converting him into a prawn he sure needs it.

All of this makes District 9 sound like a facile spectacle-driven film. It isn't. It delivers action, but always in service to a story.

One of the delights of the movie is that you have to make your own guesses as to the nature of the aliens for the movie to make sense. My guesses are that almost all the aliens are not the shipbuilders. They are bioengineered soldiers: tough, powerful, aggressive and not to bright by design. Engineering needs civility: they aren't the creators of the ship.

The film is set after the tolerance and good will and aid money has been exhausted and darker impulses have taken over the locals attitude to the alien ghetto set up below the ship.

For me a key scene is the prawn haggling for goat heads, the human shopkeeper aiming a gun at his stomach and shouting for him to put the money down before taking the meat. This is business in District 9. The prawn's body language shouts to you that if the usurious shopkeep lowers gun for a second he will break what he needs to take that goat's head. They are thinking, feeling beings, but so close to dangerous animals they require force to deal with. From there is a slippery slope down to subjugation and abuse and boy do we go there. <<Continued below>>