Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined Halo, apartheid, and Peter Jackson? You'd get a fairly entertaining action/sci-fi romp set in South Africa.

Produced by Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 follows the story of alien refugees who arrive on Earth for reasons never entirely explained, and settle in South Africa for reasons never entirely explained. Initial enthusiasm for aliens quickly gives way to weariness as South Africa is forced to carry most of the burden for housing and feeding millions of refugees. The humans come to detest the alien settlers, who are derogatorily called Prawns because of their shrimp-like appearance. All Prawns are forced to live in a ghetto called District 9, where they're exploited by both the private corporation that runs the camp and by Nigerian gangsters who operate the black market. Both groups are trying to unlock the secret of alien weaponry, which is genetically keyed so that it can only be used by Prawns.

The first half of the film follows the decision of the South African government to move the aliens to a new concentration camp that's further away from any cities. Wikus van der Merwe, a stereotypical middle manager, is tasked with informing the Prawns that they're being evicted and obtain some sign of assent, thus providing a legal pretext for what is essentially a forced relocation. Footage of Wikus (who's an interesting mix of cheerfulness, ambition, and racism) doing his job is mixed with "documentary" footage that provides the audience with necessary background information. Things fall apart when Wikus discovers an alien liquid that everyone wants to get their hands on.

The second half is a straight-forward action film, as Wikus is pursued by both the Nigerian gangsters and the military contractors who work for his employer. There's quite a bit of gun porn, as Wikus gets to play with all the fancy alien weaponry. It's worth noting that the filmmakers responsible for District 9 were originally tasked with producing the movie adaptation of the video game Halo. Presumably, the impresive action scenes in the second half were fuck you to whoever shelved that project.

Unfortunately, the two halves of the film never quite come work together as they should. The first half is clearly an allegory for apartheid, but it also references the massive refugee crisis that currently affects large parts of Africa. The "documentary" footage works fairly well here, as it gives a realistic weight to what is ultimately a very silly premise. However, the filmmakers don't bother trying to make the aliens sympathetic, and only one of them ever exhibits anything resembling a personality. Instead, the viewers are meant to feel sympathy through a process of allegorical morality. In other words, apartheid was bad, so doing the same thing to aliens must also be bad. Despite its rather obvious moralizing, there's something appealing about the film's earnestness. It reminded me of Star Trek, back when Star Trek was all about morality plays in space.

But, if the first half is a riff on Star Trek, the second half is all Star Wars. The alien liquid becomes the MacGuffin that all the characters fight over. As the movie shifts into summer blockbuster mode, the plight of the alien race is ignored in favor of the plight of Wikus and the one friendly alien. Even the heavy-handed apartheid allegory gets lost in the gunfire and obligatory male bonding. Not surprisingly, the "documentary" footage is used less and less, as it would just get in the way of the action.

District 9 has been praised by a few critics as the return of intelligent sci-fi after years of Star Wars clones (which ironically includes the recent Star Trek remake). But District 9 is little more than a low budget blockbuster that makes a few stabs at political relevance. At the end of the day, it just isn't all that smart. But battle mechs and grav guns are really, really cool.

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