Saturday, September 26, 2009

District 9

It's been nearly three days since I saw Neill Blomkamp's District 9, and I'm still not sure whether I liked or disliked it. Or rather, I know that I had both reactions, but I'm struggling to decide which one wins out. This seems appropriate for a film as rife with contradiction as District 9 is: an independent film--made outside of Hollywood, filmed and set in South Africa--which is also an effects-laden, action blockbuster which has scored more than a hundred million dollars at the box office; an allegory of apartheid which has been accused of racism. And then there's the film's bi-polar script. Its political, thought-provoking first half follows, pseudo-documentary style, the vain and empty headed Johannesburg bureaucrat Wikus Van Der Merwe through the titular slum, where twenty years ago stranded alien refugees were corralled and interned, as he lies, manipulates and threatens them into giving him some legal justification for their upcoming deportation to a concentration camp outside the city. But it transitions into a standard Hollywood running-and-shooting narrative as Wikus, who has been sprayed by the fluid in an alien canister, begins transforming into an alien and is pursued by his bosses (who want to dissect him in order to find the source of his newfound ability to use alien weapons) and forced to find refuge in the district itself and assist the aliens' plans to leave Earth.

Several of the reviews I've read have held that it's this shift from literature-of-ideas type SF to the dumb actiony kind that holds District 9 back from greatness. I'm a little to the left of that opinion. I think that both of the film's halves are successful at what they're trying to be, and that either one, extended to a complete story, would have made a fantastic film. The problem is in the fusion between them. District 9's second half is as tense and riveting an action narrative as I've seen in quite some time, impeccably shot, deftly plotted, and, for the first time in my movie-watching career, making effective use of the dreaded shaky-cam to convey confusion and chaos while still allowing me to follow the scene's thread. Action films, however, are by their nature very earnest narratives. They require us to buy into their division of characters into good guys and bad guys before we can unreservedly root for the former to defeat the latter. There is nothing earnest about District 9's first half, whose depiction of Wikus and his colleagues' callous indifference to the aliens' plight is so broad and heavy-handed as to be almost comical. It's not that I don't believe that there are people who behave as Wikus does in these early scenes towards those over whom they've been granted authority, but I absolutely do not believe in Wikus's lack of self-awareness, in the pride with which he, for example, burns down a shack containing incubating alien eggs, or threatens to take away the child of an alien who questions the eviction order, mugging and showing off for the cameras the whole time. (Funnily enough, it is actually Wikus's corporate employers, who keep a lab in which half-dissected alien bodies lie about as if on display, and who use a cattle prod on Wikus to force him to fire an alien weapon at a prisoner, who come off more believable in that respect--they're absurdly, mustache-twirlingly evil, but at least they're hiding that wickedness.)

The obvious reply to these complaints is the Wikus and others like him don't recognize the cruelty of their actions because they're committed against creatures that best resemble insects, but here I think that the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. The documentary segments blatantly and deliberately draw parallels between the aliens and various groups of disenfranchised humans (the film's title is even a reference to a Cape Town neighborhood whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated during apartheid). When talking about the aliens, Wikus makes comments which are clearly intended to recall real-world racism--the aliens have no respect for personal property; they have so many children--and the psychology of the aliens we meet, who are protective of their children, desperate for the cat food which to them is some sort of drug, cowed and terrified of Wikus's authority--is entirely human (at least, it was to my eyes--I was shocked when many reviews of the film dismissed the aliens as disgusting and monstrous, and their behavior as incomprehensible, since to my mind it seemed like exactly what you'd expect from people forced to live in squalor for a generation, which is something the film itself notes through the talking head commentaries in its first half). District 9 expects us to recognize the humanity of these creatures, but it also expects us to believe that almost none of the humans in the film's world see it, despite the fact that the aliens are essentially humans in bug suits.

District 9's early scenes (and a few of its closing ones) reminded me very powerfully of the reality TV satire Series 7: The Contenders. In that film, the reality TV craze has run its logical course and culminated in a Running Man-type series in which randomly selected contestants are forced to hunt one another until only the winner is left standing. It's a film that succeeds because it never wavers in its commitment to this absurd and unbelievable premise, essentially creating an alternate universe in which people as a group are sufficiently callous and bloodthirsty to not only tolerate but encourage and enjoy murder on prime time TV. District 9 starts out in such an alternate universe, and had the film continued in that vein it might have been an extremely effective black comedy, one which, like Series 7, invites us to laugh at its characters even as we recoil from their actions, and draws its power from the tension between these two reactions. But especially if you've walked into the movie theatre knowing that the film is going to become an action story and that the oblivious Wikus is going to become its hero, it's hard not to judge the first half of the film by our standards, and find it unbelievable and over the top. When the first half's satire transitions into the second's earnestness, the film is dealt a blow from which it never fully recovers--it's fun to watch Wikus kicking ass and taking names, and he's doing so for a righteous cause, but at the same time it's impossible to forget that the person who is now so believably human was, barely an hour ago, cartoonishly evil.

Which is not to say that Wikus is an uncomplicated or uninteresting character. One of my favorite moments in the film, and which to my mind is far more thought-provoking than anything in the documentary, comes in its second half, when Wikus breaks into his former employer's to retrieve the canister which started his transformation and, having been fired upon by a guard, uses an alien weapon to liquidate him. Wikus's companion, the alien dubbed Christopher Johnson, who needs the canister to power the stranded spaceship and has promised to cure Wikus in exchange for it, notes that Wikus told him not to kill anyone, to which Wikus replies that the guard was shooting at him. It's a tiny but perfect encapsulation of everything that's wrong with Wikus, of how reflexive and poorly thought out his morality actually is. Wikus doesn't like killing--he tries to minimize the presence of mercenary troops in the district and is shocked when one of them kills a difficult alien--but whether his enemies are aliens or human, he reacts violently when attacked without ever stopping to think why that attack happened and what he did to provoke it. In his mind, Wikus is always the good guy, even after switching sides, not because he's had a moral awakening but because he's constitutionally incapable of seeing anyone else's point of view, and therefore assumes that anyone trying to hurt him is a bad guy.

Once again, if District 9 had had the courage of its convictions and kept Wikus in his oblivious, self-centered state, it might have been at least a successful character portrait, but fifteen minutes from its end Wikus has a sudden change of heart, and chooses to sacrifice himself so that Christopher Johnson can get off the planet. This is enormously disappointing, not only because there's almost no foundation laid for Wikus's last-minute heroism, but because it means that District 9 misses out on the opportunity to be anything more than yet another story about an oppressor who becomes the champion of the oppressed, and which completely marginalizes the characters it pretends to champion by making them the passive beneficiaries of his benevolence. Instead of stumbling onto a concerted alien effort to leave the planet, Wikus just happens to meet the one alien who has been pursuing this goal, apparently on his own, and ends up enabling his efforts instead being a tool for their fruition. It is also telling that Wikus is apparently the only person in District 9 to have picked up a weapon against the mercenaries and gangsters who plague the aliens, despite the fact that the aliens have always been able to use their own weapons. (In an interview with The Onion AV, Blomkamp justifies the near-total absence of intelligent aliens by describing their psychology as hive-like, with thinkers and leaders like Christopher in the minority, but there's so little indication of this in the film itself, and the aliens we do get to know are so obviously human, that I can't help but feel that the film would make less sense if one incorporated this extraneous information into it.)

I've noted a lot of problems, some of them quite fundamental, in District 9's plot, structure, and character work, and yet despite this I found the film deeply enjoyable and engaging. When I think about how this could be it occurs to me that it's actually the film's flaws that come together and, intentionally or not, make it a success. Despite the action film structure that takes over the film's second half, I never warmed to Wikus as a hero. The character I cared about was Christopher Johnson, and the ending I wanted was for him to leave Earth and save his people. District 9 is just idiosyncratic enough, just sufficiently not a Hollywood film, that the aliens' salvation didn't seem a foregone conclusion, but enough of a traditional action film for Christopher Johnson to slot neatly into the role of the sidekick who dies so that the hero can live. I was thus genuinely nervous throughout the film, worried that my favorite character would be killed in service of the aggravating lead's heroism, and that that heroism would amount to nothing. It's pretty much impossible for a Hollywood action film to generate that kind of apprehension from me, but District 9 played with genre conventions just enough to get to me. As I said, I'm not sure that this was intentional, but it was certainly effective.

So how, in the end, to sum up District 9? On one level, the complaints I've listed here seem almost petty when one considers what the standard of storytelling and political commentary is in most effect-laden science fiction films. The simple fact that it didn't use a genocide as a means of developing a main character puts District 9 leagues ahead of Star Trek, which in turn makes it the most sophisticated and morally complex film to come out of this year's blockbuster season (not that that's not a sad commentary in itself). On the other hand, the very fact that District 9 aspires to something beyond the Star Trek-Transformers 2 axis means that it should be judged by harsher standards, and by those it is quite wanting--I haven't even touched on the film's treatment of race within humans, though I was appalled by its depiction of the Nigerian characters, a nameless mass of mobsters, pimps and cannibals. Once again, I find myself uncertain about the film--is it more laudable, or more regrettable? I hope that District 9 and its success are an indication that other filmmakers are going to make science fiction films with loftier goals than the ones we've become accustomed to, but I also hope that they are more successful than Neill Blomkamp at achieving them.

7 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

I have almost the same opinion on the separate elements of the film as you, though I am far less forgiving in the script department. The more I think about the film's script, the more I realize how messy and illogical the whole affair is, down to the standard of your typical Hollywood blockbuster. I think critics are still shocked whenever a genre film deals with a hot political issue, that they forget all about other criteria, like plot, characterization and even how this issue was handled (the collective critical drooling over "Iron Man" comes to mind here). "District 9" doesn't even try to be consistent about any element in its script - is it a satire? A pseudo-documentary? An action film? The film doesn't move from one element to the other: it runs back and fourth between them. And I really wasn't impressed about the dialogue or the acting either - the film, in any of its abovementioned plot modes, just worked to hard to deliver its message.

On the technical level, the film is undoubtedly impressive, and I agree its one of the best-looking genre films to be seen this year. But poor script with strong direction can be found in most blockbusters today, and eventually, that's what "District 9" ends up being - a blockbuster. A good one, I certainly agree, but little else.

If there is an additional value to the film, I find it not in the in-your-face metaphor for the apartheid in South Africa (personally, I found the entire Alien cast and characterization bland, uninteresting, and it seemed to have been done as an afterthought), but in the portrayal - problematic as it may be - of the post-apartheid population and its everyday life. No, it's not a very flattering portrayal - but it might be the most personal element in the whole film: director Blomkamp is himself South African by birth, and his commentary about the political atmosphere in the state, I suspect, comes from his own personal experiences.

Alison said...

I liked the genre-splicing feel of the film, and the wrenching transformation of what it was 'about'. My feelings about David Brent/Wikus went like this: 'what a clown!... what a shit... what a racist shit... yes, suffer you racist shit... light beginning to dawn... still hasn't got a clue... doing his best... still not a clue... lost everything.'

I felt it was explained pretty early on that the aliens had bee-like castes and that most were incapable of original thought. There was only one Christopher, hence the most important thing was for him/her to escape and get help. My fear was that in some way he would sacrifice himself or abandon his duty to his own species to help the white man. If that had happened, I would have thought this a very second-rate film. As it was, I thought he was the only really admirable character; he and the child. I thought they were lovely. They were two intelligent creatures stuck among ignorant bullies.

It was the clear division into good guys and bad guys, the latter killed dozens at a time, which reminded me of Robocop. And like Robocop, I enjoyed the slaughter of the baddies I'm afraid.

Athena Andreadis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Athena Andreadis said...

I thought that District 9 was a splatterfest, totally derivative in both style and content. If this is the best sf film of the year, the bar is touching the ground. My take:

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned

Anonymous said...

Regarding Wikus' decision to become the 'hero' and that you mention that there's no motivation for him to do this; it strikes me that the realisation that he's metamorphasising into a prawn and that he now understands that he's not going to be turned back into his human self added to the realisation that the MNU are no better than the Nigerians seems to me enough motivation for him to try and help CJ to leave even if that means dying. Let's not forget he's been in intense pain for several days and we have no idea what effect the metamorphosis is having on his thought processes.

I found the biggest question to be why the ship broke down in the first place and how easy (ralatively) it was to get it up and running again.

However, essentially what we've seen is Blomkamps's calling card. It's more of a showreel than anything else and as that it's a masterful piece of work that will undoubtedly lead him to much bigger budgets.

George Pedrosa said...

Regarding the absurdity of the human people on the film not recognizing the aliens as human beings, I think you answered your own question when you mentioned the many reviewers who dismissed the aliens as disgusting and incomprehensible... if the people who watch the movie, and see the absolute misery in which these creatures are forced to live, react like THAT, what can you expect from the fictional humans of District 9's world?

Keegan said...

I second George's comment. That was the point though, wasn't it? The whole entire movie, beyond being a story, is a commentary on racial segregation throughout history, and the dehumanization of other races/cultures. The aliens are very much the refuge, accepted unwillingly, and then as tension grows between the refuges and the already dominant race, you start to see that tension break out in the fights between the two. Further, in the slums you find characters who are the gang members, the pimps, the cannibals? (they were eating prawns. I don't remember them eating eachother) and so the Nigerian characters encountered within the slums, where the majority of the film is focused, of course would be the darker and worse off side of the group.

I also don't find it odd that Wikus would burn down the Prawn "hatchery". As you've mentioned, in the beginning, he was self-centered and oblivious. His job is to shuffle these Prawns from one location to another. He's dealt with them, day in and day out, and since they are from a hive mind, you have to constantly act condescendingly to them. This, and the constant tension described and touched upon during the documentary all ad up to the fact that Wikus is already dehumanized the Prawns. They are not so much sentient life as his source of pay, what he does for a living. All the value of a Prawn as a living, breathing, intellectual being is gone from Wikus' moral compass, because he doesn't interact with them beyond hearing horrible things over the news, and dealing with a population that is terribly slow and dim witted at times. I feel that its this natural state that makes Wikus all the more believable as a protagonist, especially when he comes to realize the mistreatment at his hands that the Prawns have endured, once he's forced to come to terms that he himself is becoming one. Kind of hard to keep a paradigm when the tables are turned like that.

But I feel that historically, Wikus' character is rather solid. Of course however, not many instances have occurred where an oppressor suddenly undergoes such a rapid and radical transformation into the oppressed party.

But thats all I have to say about it. I personally loved it for the fact that it happened to be able to blend the documentary approach and then switch to the action film, and leave off with more of a question mark of what happens next instead of the usual Hero saves the day. I mean, we don't know how long it'll be before CJ returns and is able to reverse the process, or if that even can happen. Wikus is left as a Prawn. How does he assimilate into the Prawn hierarchy, especially with the differences caused by not being initially Prawn? It leaves much more of a real life flavor in my mouth, knowing that this is a scenario that is much more realistic (aside from the fact Wikus turns into an alien... but then again, we don't know what an actual situation like that would entail technology-wise) in its play out and backstory than many Sci-Fi stories out there.

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