It seems to be my lot in life to never be fully in line with anyone. If you’ve searched for other reviews or have just been breezing around the world wide web of film, you’ve most likely come across piles and piles of praise for District 9, with several critics willing to label it the best film of the year. Unfortunately, I do not share my colleagues uncontrollable love for the film – but I did enjoy it quite a bit. While I readily acknowledge and happily recommend District 9 to everyone, I just don’t feel the same excitement that has lit a fire beneath the asses of so many critics.
District 9 takes place in a contemporary South Africa that is much like our own South Africa, with one important difference – an alien mothership descended over Johannesburg 28 years ago and promptly broke down, stranding more than a million crustacean like aliens on Earth. As the years passed and Earth was without a massive invasion or quantum leaps forward in technology, excitement and apprehension turned to distrust and impatience. Multi-National United (MNU) was contracted to control the alien situation, which resulted in the visitors being sequestered in District 9, a shanty-town where the only humans are gangsters and the aliens live in relative squalor. The human gangsters prey upon the aliens, trading them cat food for weapons and other items, though the alien weaponry is useless to a human as its been coded to their DNA. The story begins when our focal character, Wikus van der Merwe is tasked with organizing the transfer of nearly 2 million aliens to District 10 under the guise of an improvement of their conditions. Through him and a particularly clever alien named Christopher we come to understand the darker side of MNU and gain an insight into interspecial relations.
In his feature directorial debut, South African Neill Blomkamp has made a very dynamic entry onto the stage. His name was previously touted as being attached to direct Halo, seemingly out of nowhere, but now we can see why someone would entrust millions of dollars to this young director. Visually, District 9 is consistently stunning whether we’re following Wikus through the district or in the midst of a frantic gun battle in the slums. Blomkamp even manages to take my most hated of shots, one where the camera is attached to the actor but facing him (see Pi or Apocalyptco) and make it interesting by mounting the camera to the end of the gun in the middle of a firefight. Bravo. Blomkamp gets great performances out of a cast of people most of us have never seen, including first time actor Sharlto Copley, who absolutely owns every minute he’s on screen. The digital effects have been the object of much adulation and with great reason – they’re absolutely fantastic. Surely, any person who knows computers exist realizes and can see the aliens and their ships are CGI, but as for as CGI goes, this is near perfect stuff.
If I had a problem with the film or if I were to point a finger at a cause for my lesser excitement, it would be story. Perhaps in a generation of people 15 years removed from apartheid the story could be considered deeper than what it is – but it shouldn’t be, if history classes are still in session. You see, the aliens represent black South Africaners while everyone else represents white South Africaners, representative of a time that ended in 1994 when segregation, or apartheid, was not just accepted but enforced as law. Certainly much of the film draws inspiration directly from tales of survivors, of which there are millions, and adds the requisite amount of evil white-scientist testing to make you root for the right team. The film isn’t necessarily smart, or any smarter than any other apartheid movie, but it is capable and emotional. Within moments, while some laughed at the plight of the prawns, as they’re derogatorily called, I felt shame for being a human not even of that world. Surely we could muster some greater response than forced containment if we were visited by beings from the sky?
While it’s apartheid base didn’t wow me on that basis (make no mistake the film can be heartbreakingly emotional, if not totally original when replacing humans for aliens) it didn’t kill the film either. No, my problem was with characterizations. This may get slightly spoilery for a bit. You may have noticed I described Wikus as our “central character,” but not as our hero because he is anything but. Wikus is, at first, a pawn of a large corporation willing to forcefully evict the aliens from their homes without the slightest pause. Later, he is shown to be irrationally selfish, a trait he maintains even after he forms what is almost a bond of friendship with the alien Christopher. That bond is easily broken, however, and Wikus’ motivations remain clearly in his self-serving camp where he is more important than two million sentient aliens. It is this selfishness that disconnected me from the film. I felt like I didn’t totally care about Wikus -he was kind of a prick. Just that one character flaw in him and it dampened my entire movie going experience. Strange how the mind works.
All of that being said, District 9 is among the best films of the year. I have trouble declaring it tops of the year as it is fairly different from what else has come out already. It splits itself between being en emotional drama and a balls out action flick. The first half of the film is very emotional as we connect with the aliens and the last half is alarmingly exciting as the shit hits the fan and the bodies hit the floor, ceiling, and everything else nearby. Yes, the last part of the film is full of amazing action and some of the coolest battle scenes of the year and some of the best gunfights of the last several. The cool factor explodes with alien weaprony, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and the mechanized fighting suit which kicks tons of ass. For a few moments you forget about the emotion you felt earlier as you bounce up and down in your chair to the gallons of blood sprayed around – there are several deaths that are worthy of applause.
By now you’re no doubt as confused as I am – I say almost nothing bad about the movie but preface the review by saying I didn’t love it like everyone else. But therein is the rub – I didn’t love it like everyone else. But I did love it. District 9 is a great film that had room to be better, but ultimately was more than satisfying and lived up to all of my expectations and managed to surprise me at several turns. I applauded the splattergore moments and felt oddly touched by the emotional connection created to the prawns. Go see this movie.
Click Below to Watch the Trailer