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Film Review: District 9

District 9 (2009; Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

If you cannot sign your name, we will accept a smear of slime on the document as well.

Keyed by gritty production design, a head-turning lead performance from an unknown lead actor, and a last act packed with action beats sure to send fanboys into uncontrollable spasms of glee, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a strong, smart sci-fi allegory. That it jettisons sweeping sociopolitical conclusions for an entertaining shoot-em-up finale is perhaps intellectually unfortunate, but in the currently-moribund realm of big-screen science fiction of ideas, the film still comes across as striking, sharp, and blazingly original (if only relatively speaking).

The “apartheid with aliens” meme has by now passed from critic to critic with ease, but Blomkamp has pointed out that District 9 has more recent South African social realities in mind as well. The chaotic situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe has driven thousands of refugees into D9-style slums outside South African cities, and the reaction to them by both black and white South Africans is meant to be mirrored by the xenophobic revulsion felt towards the “prawns” in the film. In addition, the slightly cartoonishly nasty Nigerian gangsters are based on similar criminals who operate out of these slums in the real world. Indeed, if District 9 has a message worth taking away, it’s that the formerly oppressed can fairly easily be drafted into oppressing new Others; in fact, it’s very nearly a sign of social progress.

Oddly, the mockumentary style favoured by Blomkamp gives little indication of a gamut of opinions in his fictional South Africa towards the treatment of the prawns. Academic talking heads spout liberal assumptions, and there is a reference to human rights group protesting the forced eviction of the aliens (a bit ironic, really; are there no aliens rights groups?) that starts the narrative ball rolling. But South African society seems so disgusted by the prawns that they are happy to hand the reins over to a painfully obvious villain, a soulless multinational corporation unsubtly called Multinational United (MNU).

As an antagonist, MNU is utterly paint-by-the-numbers: bureaucratic, involved in arms dealing, rife with inhuman illegality. Its most morally-reprehensible decisions all seem to be made by old white men, an obvious reference to the historical sins of the Afrikaner ruling class. Still, in a canny but subtle move, we see in TV news clips that the CEO is black, though he seems to be mostly a figurehead as far as the handling of District 9 goes. It’s no stretch to see this as a sneaky comment on the tenuous political power of the ANC, or perhaps it is.

Human-Prawn Solidarity

Of course, MNU is only interested in alien weaponry and in horrid Nazi-esque medical experiments, the latter in particular a cliched marker of cautionary sci-fi. They also employ sadistic soldiers of fortune who “shoot first and then answer the questions”, as one character puts it. That our human protagonist is an awkward, preening, irritating bureaucrat who undergoes a harrowing transformation is perhaps no more original. But Sharlto Copley gives Wikus Van der Merwe (his last name is a standby in South African jokes about dull-witted everymen) a gradually-building, devastating humanity. Coming off like a bit player from The Office at first (and amusingly so), Copley suffers palpably before our very eyes, and is mesmerizing while doing so.

Ultimately, Wikus Van der Merwe is a truest conduit into whatever meaning Blomkamp wants us to take out of District 9, even when he’s sobbing through emotional cell phone calls from his distant, suffering wife. When the (admittedly thrilling) action takes over completely about halfway through, Blomkamp marks the transition by ceasing to even pretend that there is a real documentary camera present. But Copley grounds the proceedings even as he becomes a standard-issue selfless hero. He carries a film full of impressive techical accompishments and rousing action filmmaking with vast sociopolitical questions simmering beneath the surface. If Blomkamp’s impressive feature debut doesn’t tackle these questions as completely as it could, he deserves credit for asking for them in the first place, and for cannily drawing out the possibilties for extraterrestrials as the troubling markers for human Others that they’ve always really been in the Western cultural imagination. This is probably District 9‘s biggest secret.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 11, 2014 at 3:37 pm

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