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by Owen & Lianne)

Not sure whether District 9 is going to be your kind of film? Given the hype, viral advertising, and abstract reviews on offer, it’s not particularly surprising. Here we offer two perspectives on the movie of the moment.

Part One

(Owen)

As most small-town Americans will confirm – unlike most blockbusters’ portrayals – when the alien mothership turns up, it doesn’t always head straight to New York.

By all accounts, Director’s Neill Blomkamp’s head-first foray into Hollywood’s home-turf is by no means a standard affair. The stage is set as his home-town of Johannesburg, South Africa, amidst the heavy spectre of a giganormous alien-craft casting a dark shadow over the sprawling township below.

As the voice-over reveals, it’s not merely the setting of this movie which is off the beaten track. For starters, take the regular cinematic narrative that ‘aliens come here to invade us’, and turn it on it’s head: this time, for reasons unknown, the aliens arrive dishevelled, unmotivated and confused (perhaps from a long, long journey, with the sole in-flight entertainment consisting of the usual mindless Hollywood garble?)

The hapless creatures have been sprung from their ironclad vessel by human rescue teams, and re-housed in a vast slum quarter labelled ‘District 9’. Meanwhile the humans’ governments haphazardly attempt to decide what exactly to do with them, as well as their exotic alien technology.

Enter ‘the antagonist’ – Multinational United (MNU) – the faceless arms mega-corporation, so unquestionably bent on profits they make their real-life cohorts ‘Halliburton‘, look soft-touch. MNU are primarily intrigued with the various alien weaponry recovered from the derelict ship – which incidentally looks like they’ve been plucked straight out of Quake III Arena. The unhelpful obstacle to arms trading beyond their wildest dreams is that these mouth-watering guns have been selfishly bio-engineered to only work with alien DNA, rendering them useless to human soldiers…

In the midst of this profit-clawing, the South Africans nationals are becoming increasingly agitated with their recently acquainted neighbours. Not unreasonably either, as the aliens are aggressive, pig-headed and most of all hungry. After their long-haul flight they’re severely malnourished and scour the city for cow’s heads, meats, grills, and most bizarrely, cat food? (surprisingly, no ‘kitty-kat’ product-placement in sight.)

With demonstrations in the streets and ‘no non-humans’ – or ‘Prawns’ as they’re derogatorily referred to – signs popping up all over the place, the government appoints the shady MNU to orchestrate an apparently generous relocation scheme to a newly constructed camp some 200-miles outside Jo’burg. When the Mr. Bean-style son-in-law of the MNU director is cruelly appointed to lead the relocation plan – backed up MNU’s trigger-happy ‘1st Battalion’ Mercenaries (with a satisfying nod towards the ever-controversial ‘Blackwater‘) – into the squalid District 9, the film really begins to kick off…

One of the most startling achievements of this film is its seamless CGI. Combined with the ‘documentary style’ camera-work, and despite the clunking of complex machinery and the constant presence of 7-foot insectoid aliens with multiple twitching appendages, it’s very easy to forget you’re watching a CGI film at all. No surprise to learn that Director Neill Blomkamp’s previous venture was to direct the charismatic Citroen advert ‘Alive With Technology‘, which featured a rather slick dancing car-cum-transformer.

Not since perhaps the legendary E.T. has so much ‘alien emotion’ been conveyed on screen, while the movie’s intense action and gore – which may prove too much for some people (I know I wasn’t alone when I looked away during certain blood-splattered moments), only adds to this gritty fantasy-flick. Collectively, they subtly bring home the film’s intelligent narrative – that of the horrors of apartheid, which unfortunately, brings us all crashing down to earth.


Part Two

(Lianne)

First things first – any attempt at condensing this film into a succinct sellable bundle will fail miserably. This is not (just) because the film is an accomplished one, but more because it’s quite unlike any sci-fi film in recent years. It’s for this reason that I’m reluctant to mention the often-tiresome theme of ‘aliens’ to friends whom I know are not immediately of the geeky/cult persuasion – I fear it will turn them away from what might be the best offering of the year so far.

As Owen mentioned, there’s a long-running Hollywood blueprint for any film falling into the ‘alien’ category to have the same old formula: alien invasion + human naiveté  = all out war. Think Cloverfield, War of the Worlds, and Independence Day, to name a few.

And this is where District 9 breaks ranks; it takes up the recognisable movie motifs – the vast mothership, for instance – yet it comes to a halt over Johannesburg. One news reporter enunciates this deliberate rupture, with “this is the kind of thing you’d expect in Manhattan”. The film adopts familiar concepts from sci-fi, as well as the moral vocalisation of a social commentary; and they are both presented to us through the lens of the rather unprecedented narrative.

There are a number of things worth commenting on about this film…

The remarkable imagining of an alien race, both in terms of the film’s brilliant use of CGI, but also the species’ character. They’re not the ruthless killing machines we’ve come to know and expect – merely primordial ‘bottom-feeder’ workers, rendered refugees by the lack of a ‘leader’, and an effective intergalactic shipwreck.

There are inevitable readings of the film as a commentary on apartheid – supported by the echoes of the race-based evictions in Cape Town’s ‘District 6’ early in the twentieth century. Also, there have been rumblings of complaints about the portrayal of the Nigerian gangs that effectively rule the roost in the slum towns – to the point at which they are actively deferred to by the MNU security forces. I don’t imagine that having the sole national representatives as corrupt murderers, unscrupulous arms dealers, interspecies pimps, and totemic cannibals, would make anyone particularly happy. Throw in the odd Sony Nigerian scam joke within a few weeks of each other, and I have some sympathy.

But back to the good points. Our protagonist Wikus, particularly through his relationship to the alien ‘Christopher’ is the nucleus of the film. He develops from an awkward David Brent-type brown-noser, through to an almost-irritatingly selfish wreck, and then onwards again to the end (which I’ll try not to ruin). The film ‘humanises’ a number of characters in a number of ways.

Overwhelmingly though, the stylistic choices that struck me as best chosen are the things that are left unsaid. There are so many technicalities to staging a narrative like this. We never find out what species the aliens are, where they’re from, or why they came to Earth. In pragmatic terms, we aren’t told how humans and aliens can understand each other, yet only speak their own languages, or how these refugee camps were established, or how exactly the science of the life-changing point in the film for Wikus works (you’ll know when you see it).

It is a cliché to celebrate films that ‘presume an intelligent audience’ and ‘don’t just hand it to you on a plate’, but this is one of them. Moreover, it’s not even established as a puzzle that needs solving; compared to the momentum of other films, these are issues that are superfluous to the main thrust of the film at hand. As a result of these ‘plot-holes’, we are left with an arguably more realistic representation of both individual social behaviour and collective bureaucratic action when ordinary people and ordinary governments are faced with the total unknown.

Ultimately after District 9, the narrative schemas of the majority of Hollywood films – the faux-internationalism, implausibly coherent leadership and unlikely national unity of a single country bullishly leading the charge for ‘world peace’ – suddenly seem all the more cringeworthy.

[For a great reading of the film Independence Day¸to whom I owe some of these ideas of fear/leadership in international relations, check out Cynthia Weber’s ‘International Relations: A Critical Introduction’, available here on Google Books]

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5 thoughts on “For Human Eyes Only: District 9, A Review

  1. Really well put!

    I watched this last night and was stunned in several ways, although I thought the film degenerated from its high-point of social commentary about 1/3 of the way through. For my liking, the latter parts of the film would have been a little less action, a little more hard-truths. There are truths harder than gore and guns.

    Ultimately, though, I found it excellent. Couldn’t agree more on the lack of reason for the appearance of the aliens – why should everything be rationalised? As a favourite author of mine (whose quotations seem to permeate my day-to-day speech patterns) puts it:

    “Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop…gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver, to discover that there is no Driver… no Horses,… only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prarie of desperate immensity….”

    Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Jonathan Cape: London, 1997), p. 361.

    • I agree with your sentiment about the overt action finale. I felt a more ‘overwhelmed’ than ‘pondering’ after the credits rolled.

      Unfortunately I think it was always pitched as an ‘intellectual action film’, rather than a ‘actionized intellectual film’, so it had to deliver on that level. And I imagine that Blomkamp wanted to show-off his most rehearsed skill – CGI – which means lots of clunking machinery and explosions.

      Even so, perhaps it bridges the void between outright intellectual movies and Hollywood? – thus commendably inducing some mental stimulation in the usual pop-corn crowd.

  2. I totally agree with you about the last bit of the film. It turned semi-‘Transformers’-y (since that franchise apparently has the popular culture monopoly on any slick CGI robot shenanigans), and I do think it detracted somewhat from the main parts. (But ran the risk of going overboard with the length if I were to put that in!)

    Then again, I’ve now become entirely desensitised to seeing human bodies instantaneously combusting. That’s an apocalypse scenario life skill if there ever was one.

    P.S. Go Pynchy!

  3. I have (somehow) managed to avoid much of the advertising/hype related to this film, and so was rather unaware of its content/story-line. From the little I had heard i was under the impression of it being ‘just another alien film’, thanks for changing my mind, and making me want to go out and see it for myself.

    • Yeah, I think that’s probably the hardest thing to get across through the advertising – the fact that it isn’t anothetr boring blockbuster. The online buzz about it is what made me want to see it. Anyhoo, I hope you enjoy it when you get round to watching it, let us know what you think.

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