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Movie Review: District 9

August 15, 2009

During my time at UCLA, I was fortunate enough to take an elective course that focused specifically on science fiction. The professor based the analytical philosophy of the course on the notion that science fiction is not about the future. It’s not about trying to guess what’s coming, and it’s not about technology. It’s about the present, about wrestling with our fears. It’s about holding up a mirror to our social struggles and being able to see them from a different perspective. Or, if on a less grand scale, science fiction is most often concerned with what it means to be human.

I found this definition of science fiction to be compelling and convincing, and through that lens it’s easy to see why films like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen fail to strike a chord the way “old school” sci-fi does. A common complaint from fans of the Transformers franchise is that the films have put too much emphasis on the human characters — ironically, this has resulted in an inability of the audience to connect with the material, as the human characters are thinly drawn and stunningly uninteresting.

Science fiction is not necessarily about being biologically human so much as being emotionally human. It’s about framing the human struggle through a different perspective. And as such, District 9 is the best science fiction film I’ve seen in a very long time.

Directed by feature film newcomer Neill Blomkamp, District 9 is based loosely on the short film “Alive in Joburg” — which, along with some of Blomkamp’s other work, was pivotal in landing him an attachment to the megabudget Halo feature film. It was through Halo that Blomkamp met Peter Jackson (who was producing the project), and when the project collapsed under the weight of studio politics, Jackson stuck with Blomkamp and encouraged him to develop something else that they could do together.

Like “Joburg,” District 9 is the product of Blomkamp’s refreshingly non-American sensibilities. Raised in South Africa, Blomkamp experienced apartheid firsthand (whereas most Americans under 30 probably don’t even know what that is — google it), which combined with the general instability of the region informs his vision of what society would be like if aliens contacted us. Americans are a war-like people, and this shows in our ideas of what alien contact would entail — to wit, it’s usually war. But coming from a region filled with xenophobia and economic instability and class struggles and all of that, Blomkamp imagines a world where it’s the aliens who are the victims. They may live in filth and be hideously insectoid, but it isn’t long before our disgust is leveled at the film’s humans instead.

As anyone who’s seen the trailers knows, the film follows a sniveling bureaucrat — Wikus van de Merwe[1], played by first-timer Sharlto Copley — who gets a faceful of alien aerosol during a mass Trail of Tears-like eviction of the alien population (identified as a group by the derogatory term “prawns”) from their home in the demilitarized shanty town called District 9. As the effects of his contact with this alien substance begin to take hold, he finds his fate inextricably tied with the fate of District 9.

The story structure is pretty standard hero’s journey stuff. Guy is taken from his ordinary world by extraordinary circumstances and with the help of a guide from this other world must obtain the object of desire and will be changed in the process. There aren’t any giant surprises in the structure, and so the question is not so much about what will happen as how.

Copley’s performance is fantastic, and combined with the nearly flawless VFX work — particularly impressive considering the loose, handheld shooting style — makes it easy to forget the astounding technical achievements involved in pretty much every shot. I think it’s a major testament that more often than not, even with aliens sharing the scene with him, my eyes were on Copley. He is totally compelling and sells every moment of the world he inhabits and the changes he’s going through.

The film switches between fully documentary-style, in which the characters openly acknowledge the presence of the camera, and a more straightforward (though still mostly handheld) narrative, the former more heavily utilized toward the front of the movie and vice-versa. It didn’t really bother me, as I expected that that would have to be the case, but I heard that a few people found it jarring. The directing is competent and confident, and it’s easy to forget that this is Blomkamp’s first feature.

There are also several moments where it seems like Blomkamp took the opportunity to do some stuff he wanted to do in Halo but figures he’s not likely to get the chance, such as a few brief but distinct “first person shooter” style shots.

This film is intense, and it’s brutal. “Unflinching,” to use a cliché. Or for another cliché, I was genuinely on the edge of my seat through most of the film, because even though I pretty much knew where it was going, a lot of really ugly things could (and many did) happen along the way. I found myself deeply unsettled throughout the film, and even as the credits rolled. The film left me with a lot of questions, but the right kind. Not a “what the hell was with X” type of question, but “what are the implications of X for that world?”

I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that it does leave room for a sequel. But I hope that they don’t do it. This film is a solid, compact social examination (one can’t even say commentary, as the film doesn’t really comment) that refrains from tying things up in a neat little bow, and I think that uncertainty fits well with the reality of the rest of the movie. Real life doesn’t work out all tidy, either. As much as I loved this movie, I think doing District 10 could only cheapen it. I’ll see it if they make it, and cross my fingers that they got it right, but I’d rather see Blomkamp direct his considerable talent elsewhere.

Two final notes: the film was shot primarily on the RED One, waaaay back in the Build 15 days, and it looks beautiful. If I wasn’t told I would never have picked it out. And the second note: this film cost only $30 million to make. Keep that in mind when you’re watching, consider the scope of the work, and ask yourself why in the holy hell anyone is giving Michael Bay $200 million a picture to burn.

With the little-seen Moon as the harbinger earlier this summer, and the anticipation of Avatar building, District 9 marks the definite, official return of solid storytelling, competent directing, and true science fiction to cinema, a straightforward but satisfying experience that will probably be underappreciated now, but spoken of favorably alongside the other classics of the genre. Go see it.


       

  1. According to Roger Ebert’s review, the name “van de Merwe” is not only the South African equivalent of “Smith,” but also a sort of recurring character in South African jokes, a sort of proper name short-hand for “incompetent buffoon.” But then, he also says that “none of [the alien] weapons seem superior to those of the humans,” which is so blatantly false that one wonders if he even watched the film at all.

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4 Comments
  1. Hi Michael,

    Given your interests, you might be interested in my novel, Requiem of the Human Soul, which deals with the question of whether genetic engineering might change what it means to be human.

    The novel’s set in the late 22nd century when most people are genetically enhanced d-humans; those who remain unenhanced – Primals – are the global underclass.
    In a hearing at the UN, the d-humans are considering whether to make the Primals extinct, given their abominable track record of genocides, climate change, etc.

    You can read more about it at http://www.humansoul.com

    Let me know if you find it interesting.

  2. Thanks for the review Michael.
    I liked your intro with a brief commentary about science fiction in general,which in my view is as valid of a medium as any other to do some serious and deep storytelling.
    The kind that can lead you to personal growth by exercizing your intellect.
    Some of the points you touched reminded me of Asimov explaining his literary work. More than once he was criticized about the lack of technical detail and science truthfulness. To which Asimov simply answer that his stories were not about technology but rather a vehicle to tell us about frustration, anger and ultimately about love, love for life , for one another, for a goal… In general about human feelings and journey, inhabiting in persons made of flesh or metal.
    I could not agree more on the budget commentary and how some low (or should I say modest) budget films outperform in every respect these mega monsters of 200 million plus of today. I thought that something was learned since “El Mariachi” was made for only $7,000 dollars. Ok I may be taking it a bit to the extreme…
    This comment might be going to long but I have to vent because is really very frustrating to see the monumental waste of resources to make some of those mega budget flops (And I do not mean necessary commercial flops, apparently there is an audience for some of them, but most people are lured in with candy coated trailers and reviews).
    The election of a virtual unknown for the lead seems a good one. I can not imaging a movie like this with, say, Tom Cruise or Leonardo Di Caprio as leads here, as much as I like them in other projects. I wouldn’t have a chance to connect with the story.
    Thanks again, heading to the theater tomorrow.

  3. Lovely review. Agreed with every word.

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