District 9

I'll give you the summary first: an intriguing premise, interesting source material, an allegory that fails rather massively, a story with serious issues, and gorgeous special effects shots. Points of praise: -The imagery is disturbing and goes for the gut; few or no punches are pulled, in depicting the squallor and brutality of the film's events. The special effects are executed quite competently, and given that the film is trying to make a point about "man's inhumanity to man", I appreciate that they don't tone down or lessen the blow. I had significant problems with the allegory, but these sequences are gut-wrenchingly direct about their subject matter. The special effects sequences toward the end, violent as they are, are worthy of additional praise -- the alien mecha-suit is just gorgeous, portrayed in a competent manner and with all the love I'd expect from Neill Blomkamp (who loves him some ultratech). -The premise was an interesting one (and I was sort of fascinated with the project when I saw "Alive in Joburg", the short film on which this was based). For those not aware, the idea is that a spacecraft filled with alien refugees comes to a halt over Johannesburg in South Africa (awesome; I'm tired of alien space fleets always stopping over New York or Los Angeles). That's...it, unfortunately. It's kind of downhill from here. After some confusion about what to do, the aliens are brought into the city; they're segregated away in "District 9", a direct allegory for the real-life District 6 in Cape Town -- an allegory in more than name, as the plot of the film begins with plans to evict the alien residents (whom the human population, black and white alike, hate equally in what's supposed to be a mirror of the real-life racial tension that has punctuated South Africa's history, even after the end of apartheid laws). The main character ("Wikas van der Merwe") works for Multinational United, a generically evil megacorp with a massive paramilitary police contract in Johannesburg. Wikas, along with everyone else, is portrayed as deeply prejudiced towards the aliens; he's supposedly a slightly better sort for walking a hazy line wherein he has the decency to object to needlessly killing them, yet still intolerant enough to screw them over bureaucratically and bribe, blackmail, or threaten the adults (he's quite enthusiastic about the practice of "aborting" the children in their growing egg sacs, who are implied to be sentient even before they've hatched). In all, a disgusting guy, the sort of person who can trick people into signing away their legal right to protest being sent to a concentration camp, yet still go home and see himself as a decent family man. Then he gets sprayed with a mysterious liquid, created by the Special Aliens, the only two in the slum who appear to have any ambition or knowhow. The rest are literally portrayed as junkies, savages and barely able to even speak a sentence, filthy and even -- by the documentary talking heads who are taken to be the objective, academic voice in this work -- as biologically incapable of true initiative, a "worker class" that's helpless and useless without their command caste. Wikas starts turning into an alien himself. In what I'm sure somebody thought was an incredible plot twist, he's suddenly treated like a disposable resource by his own employers, and a disgusting freak by the other humans he meets. He's been made one of them, and now he's only good for killing or vivisection so they can decode the alien's technology, which can only be operated by those with the right DNA. Is that all it takes for him to learn the error of his ways? What a guy. Wikas breaks free and goes on the run; MNU runs a smear campaign so everyone will hate him and want to turn him in. He goes to the one place where he might expect to be able to hide. Say it with me now: "District 9." His wife calls him up and breaks it off (which is painted as more of a personal tragedy than the sheer background of violence, cruelty and hatred, something that struck me as...well, unintentionally ironic given the point the director seemed to be aiming for). Later on, she calls him again and changes her mind, though that turns out to be a setup for the MNU goons to track his cellphone's location. From there it's pretty much Mighty Whitey all the way, as Wikas rescues the two Special Aliens (who I'll hereafter refer to as "Pops" and "Junior"; the father has something equivalent to a "slave name", but it never really stuck in my head), who are revealed as possessing the means to get back to their ship...if they can get some more of the fluid that transformed Wikas, which the elder Special Alien suggests is might also be able to reverse his transformation. Wikas, who just wants his life to go back to normal so he can be happily married and not a twisted freak, steals some guns from the Nigerian warlord in the camp -- did I mention? The only actual black people in this film are sidekicks, violent gangsters, prostitutes who fuck the aliens, criminals who exploit them, or else nearly invisible in the background. Wikas and the alien father haul off for an assault on MNU to get enough of the fluid. Dad, understandably a bit shaken up at the sight of his vivisected brethren, nearly fucks everything up by having emotions about the horror he's just witnessed, just as a gunfight starts. Fortunately it's douchebag hero to the rescue (he never does really redeem himself, either). Something the aliens never thought of. The aliens with all this advanced awesome tech in their possession, like guns that can splash human beings like water balloons or giant mecha suits. They just kinda rolled over and accepted being the underclass because they lack initiative or the will to do more for themselves... Wikas betrays the Special Aliens when they tell him something that he doesn't want to hear, like that he might not be able to change back quickly or that Pops' priority might be, y'know, rescuing his people from all this shit. Meanwhile MNU's forces pour into the slum, meeting violent resistance from both the Nigerian warlords and the aliens themselves. Once Wikas screws that up, he has a change of heart, and all it took was for his self-righteous temper tantrum to get shot down. Wikas steals a powered alien mecha suit from the Nigerian warlords, whom he slaughters ruthlessly. Then he rescues Pops, just in the nick of time (who seems happy to see him, considering Wikas just threw him to the wolves and botched his entire plan for escape). An orgy of violence ensues, with Wikas tearing through the slums like a colossus and pasting gangsters and MNU goons left and right while Pops scurries for cover. Eventually reunited with his son, Pops activates the main spacecraft and the two of them drift away into the colossal looming starship. All thanks to Wikas' heroic(?) self-sacrifice. Wikas is about to be killed, but a bunch of the aliens come to his aid, dismembering the last soldier and completing Wikas's cinematic apotheosis. Pops and Junior bog off with the spacecraft, after conspicuously failing to rescue any of their people whatsoever (I thought that was the whole point...), and the ugly status quo is gradually restored. District 9's inhabitants are sent to their concentration camp, a documentary shot of Wikas' wife holding a gift he made her takes some brief precedence, and then we're treated to a shot of an alien building an identical sculpture. He has become One Of Them. -- Ye gods, do I even have to point out how deeply problematic this is? Let's recap: A bunch of dumb, lurching, idiotic, squallid savages are kinda-but-not-really saved by the big white hero, who's the real victim in all this because he got corrupted and turned into one of Them. Actual people of color who are bit parts, criminals, deviant whores, or superstitious natives who want to eat the aliens to gain their power. One white man doing in three days what hundreds of thousands of aliens couldn't figure out in twenty years, because they were just too busy being the source of their own problems in life. A broken metaphor: the aliens are perfectly equipped to negotiate on their own terms, but too busy being lazy, stupid criminal savages, and as a result the foreign minority is oppressed brutally by the local majority (you know, the exact opposite of apartheid, unless maybe you want to read the aliens as the colonizing Dutch, which is totally not present in the subtext). Most of the actual plot and drama revolving around said white guy's tale of woe, transformation into the Other he despises, and losing his wife, with a profound failure to display any growth or character development. -- I wanted to like this movie. "Alive in Joburg" intrigued me. Neill Blomkamp's short films were quite promising. I did read a few reviews that admittedly put me off before seeing it, but I still went (increasingly grudgingly), determined to watch first and judge for myself what was there. Unfortunately, District 9 mostly made me angry or sick to my stomach. The whole allegory felt painfully off, as though the director took a deep, complex and disturbing topic and then told a story about it that more or less made him the star. At points, I wanted to walk out of the theatre, knowing that it had gotten this far and wasn't going to redeem itself now. I shuddered to hear people behind us call it a "great film" as the credits rolled. It isn't. District 9 is at best a mixed bag, and that is being exceedingly kind to it. A simplistic plot executed competently, marred by the failure's of the director's perspective to truly say something substantial or even relevent in its allegorical attempt to call attention to the dark side of human nature. If forced to rate it on scale of 1-5, I'd give it a 2; it's not *complete* tosh, insofar as it could have been much more credibile and even edgy, but the scope of how badly the film butchers its own message, even just in the subtext, makes it painful and clumsy at best.