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.