And this is your spoiler alert. I’m going to dissect the movie so move on if you don’t want to know what happens in some of it.
There’s been a lot of hype about District 9. It was discussed some on my writers group list and people have seen all the bus ads and trailers. My neighbor said, “Oh that’s supposed to be one of the best movies of the year.” It’s produced by Peter Jackson of LOTR fame and director Neill Blomkamp. And while I found the movie good, it wasn’t great.
What works for it are quite a few things. This movie would not have worked with name brand actors like Pitt or Depp. It supposed to take on a realistic feel of our world today, with a mockumentary beginning, film clips of news reels, interviews with various academics and psychologists. These people are warty and blemished, tired and unkempt, everything that says it’s not all smoothed over Hollywood makeup.
If we saw Will Smith pop onto the screen, we’d know it’s another action packed movie where the US saves the day again and again and again. This movie begins with film clips (which I actually thought there were too many of and somewhat boring but does set the time and place) where we find that the alien ship came to rest somewhere over Johannesburg. The narrator quips that it wasn’t New York or Chicago or London. And when they looked inside the ship there were malnourished and starving aliens.
Aliens that are buggy or insectoid in appearance. At least they’re not Star Trek aliens, which tend to be humanoid with odd noses.
But how do you make an insectile creature sympathetic? With the alien in Alien, the antagonist, it was black and large, with no eyes and a very scary double set of very sharp teeth (interestingly enough this is the type of maw that eels have). The prawns, as they’re called in District 9, have antenna and instead of teeth, mouths that have tendrils like a carp’s. They can eat cans and tires and have a penchant for cat food. And the best way to get the audience to relate to the prawns is to give them big humanoid eyes.
That and to give them cute children, little miniatures. The main alien has a son, really the only child we see in the alien ghetto. Now it’s interesting that there is this attachment to offspring when it’s shown that they’re raised as eggs in a central feeding incubator. But then the aliens are intelligent so perhaps they know which egg is theirs. The only other alien creature shown is some creature used in illegal (equivalent of) cockfighting rings. The creatures are like giant shrimp, maybe a couple of feet long, with very sharp stingers, like long needles. They’re pitted against each other to death. So are they some sort of alien vermin, or prepubescent aliens (that have no faces) though stingers are not evident on the adults?
Eventually we get to some amateur filming of middle management and somewhat dweeby Wikus (pronounced Vikus) van der Merwe who is in charge of relocating 1.8 million aliens. The aliens are segregated in a slum, for 20 years, but protests have grown against them. Here we’re introduced to a host of smaller characters and your basic fodder for the carnage to come, as well as the guy in charge of the military end of the relocation, Kobus Venter. He’s brusque, aggressive and physically pushes Wikus in the beginning, setting up for further confrontation. So here we have the antagonist, the army.
This is in no way new to many films. What’s nice about this movie is that the aliens aren’t invading and really are downtrodden to begin with. But it’s cliche to have the bad army dudes who are shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of mentalities. The main guy is of course crafty and wily and vicious. And then there’s Wikus’s father-in-law who puts Wikus in charge and is all too happy to sacrifice his son-in-law without so much as a moment’s remorse when it turns out they can harvest him for alien biotech once he was infected by an alien device.
And here is the biggest cliche of all. The scientists/doctors who want to harvest him will of course want the heart first but don’t even anesthitize him. (Well, Jame Bond, let me tell you about my evil plan to take over the world while you dangle over a pit of sharks/fire/blades.) He can’t get away, you see, if he’s knocked out which any scientist would do, even to a lab experiment. Even if you don’t have a humane bone in your body, you don’t want your specimen jerking about and ruining the harvest (and they want DNA so why the hell do they need the heart?)
That alien device that caused Wikus’s predicament is the pivotal part of the movie. The aliens need it to get off of the Earth and it’s taken 20 years to gather enough fluid to make it work. Why is there enough alien junk on the ground for them explore is a mystery. Why no one really seems to be able to communicate with the prawns or try to understand them (where are the xenobiologists and xenobotanists, etc. in all of this?) is never explained. Only Wikus as he’s metamorphosing, from a squirt of the device’s fluids, understands the prawn and the prawns of course understand the humans easily. Earth doesn’t want them but won’t let them go. I didn’t quite understand this.
Nor did I understand that all of the aliens except for three (the dad, the son and the faithful friend who sacrifices him/herself) seem to be brawling and base, little better than animals, and no one remembers how the ship worked it seems. But then they were probably all just passengers and the crew was small. I guess I could accept that there is only one commander who knows how to run the ship. Doesn’t seem like a great failsafe though to have no other crew.
Except for their carapaces these aliens are pretty human in their emotions and lives. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an alien and make it sympathetic to humans, hence the big eyes, the kid and the emotions. They eat differently but they fight back, or they make bargains with the Nigerians who are known for their scams (yes, this is a little tongue in cheek joke). Why it’s Nigerians in South Africa is not clear and the major crimelord is in a wheelchair, therefore wants to eat parts of the aliens to give him power. A little convoluted since these aliens are living in the slums and have no power.
What really doesn’t make sense is that the aliens do have power but don’t seem to ever use it. They are stronger than humans and can rip them apart with their bare claws. They also have loads of weapons that they sell to the Nigerians for cat food. How they got these items off of the mothership is unclear since all of the prawns were ferried 20 years ago by humans and they have no transport of their own to the ship. Yet these weapons are mondo in all sense of the word. They’re bigger (because it’s better) than our weapons and their power is decimating, yet the aliens never use them but live as subjugated second citizens.
So are there flaws in this movie? Yes, plenty. Are there cliches? Unfortunately enough to keep it from being a great movie. It’s obviously a movie about segregation and subjugation, about insensitivity to otherness and racism. Wikus is the reluctant hero who is almost brought down by the nearly invincible Venter. The actor Sharlto Copley does a good job and the effects are well done. But the problems with the plot and the cliches worked against the story and the great effects. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five. Maybe four for the effects but there’s room to grow.