[District 9, 2009. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell. Released on DVD and Blu-Ray. This review is a post-viewing review and contains many spoilers.]
Fortunately not every science fiction movie can or should look like a James Cameron production, an Avatar. However, it’s worth noting how closely Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 tracks the spirit of many Cameron movies: The Corporation as bogey-man, the revenge of the underdog theme, the relatively weak story-telling, and the way District 9 turns into a bloodbath later in the movie.
Comparison to Cameron’s work is not faint praise. That a reasonably good sci-fi movie of larger scale such as District 9 is made at all in today’s turvy-topsy film industry is already an achievement. That District 9 contains elements, such as gory combat, obviously tailored to appeal to juvenile audiences, and hence have investment appeal to industry money providers is pretty much a given. Perhaps director Neill Blomkamp isn’t up to Cameron’s golden touch; but District 9 does seem like he might want to be. Not that the average moviegoer cares about which director can do what. (Sci-fi enthusiasts might care.)
As science fiction movies go, District 9 is an interesting mix of alien environment, social message, and rock-em-sock-em fighting. The story is relatively uncomplicated: An alien spaceship, apparently stranded by some kind of mishap or breakdown, brings a benighted group of aliens to Earth. After the shock of their arrival wears off and not knowing what to do with a spaceship full of bipedal crayfish, we (humans) put them in a sequestration camp. The camp quickly turns into a slum and righteous humans are appalled by the behavior of the “Prawns” as they’re called. The alien presence turns from curiosity into a blight. Most people simply want them moved out of sight. So the government decides to relocate the camp. The relocation effot takes up most of the film.
If you don’t have a science-fiction background, some of District 9 may seem a tad strange. It uses many familiar cues from other sci-fi flicks: the ominous hovering mothership of the aliens (V or Independence Day); the hideous facial appearance of the aliens (the Predator movies); the faux documentary story frame (a favorite of 1950′s SF movies). Blomkamp knows how to tug at sci-fi memories; but it may leave the uninitiated a little confused.
Perhaps questions will tug at your consciousness while you’re watching. Like how is it an alien species with enough technological sophistication to travel the galaxy winds up at the mercy of such troglodytes as the human race? The alien spaceship, hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa is clearly well beyond human technology. The aliens have obviously mastered biological principles at a level far superior to our own. They even have better weaponry than we do. Plus, they have very human-like emotions and the ability to express them violently. Why do they tolerate the brutish treatment by human beings? The movie provokes such questions and provides no answers.
I suspect this kind of question was never on the mind of the movie-maker(s). What definitely seems to have been on their mind was creating a science fiction analogy for the repression of the blacks by former South African Apartheid policies. Certainly the story and situation is meant to be remindful of that. The emotional drive of the movie depends on the viewer eventually taking sides with the aliens against the stupid prejudices of most humans. The movie focuses on one man, Wikus Van de Merwe (played by first-time actor Sharlto Copely), the man in charge of re-locating the alien sequestration camp. As the only developed character in the movie, we watch him evolve from a smiling but inept and bigoted bureaucrat into an effective warrior for the cause of the aliens. His transitions are pivotal to the plot and to our emotional involvement. We are meant to discover through him that Prawns have intelligence, feelings, family and aspirations – just like us.
It takes most of the movie to accomplish de Merwe’s evolution. It’s very important that we understand the injustices done to the aliens and how this man is punished for his desire to help them. The movie wants to manipulate us into taking sides with the aliens, just like some Hollywood movies wanted the audience to root for the indians. Only it’s largely a sympathy for our own guy, not an emotional caring for the aliens. Unlike Cameron’s Avatar, there is no beautiful Neytiri for us to form a love link. The alien father in District 9 is sympathetic, but no more than that. For the most part, the aliens seem quite human in their emotional range – but remain…alien.
I gather many people find the situation in the movie innovative and stimulating. It is, but to me in a Hollywood-wannabe way. What gave me that impression? – an orgy of retribution in a blizzard of blood spray and exploding body parts – mostly human – as the movie grinds to an end.
If you’re not familiar with the science fiction rule of commensurate technologies, District 9 is a good movie to observe its absence. The rule goes like this, for example, if an alien species has the technology to travel faster than light, then it must have other technologies in communications, robotics, computerization and so forth at roughly the same level. The reasoning for this is based on scientific knowledge. If you know enough science to, say, use quantum effects for intergalactic travel, then you certainly ought to know how quantum effects are used for communications. One area of scientific knowledge implies, sooner rather than later, similar advances in other areas of scientific knowledge.
Given this rule, what do you make of a species that can travel to Earth from somewhere millions of light-years away, but have no equivalent of a telephone? Or a species that has developed a sophisticated knowledge of a chemical (“juice”) that runs spaceships and provides other kinds of abundant energy, but are unable to understand the biology of human food or other human “juices” – worse, they don’t even seem to be curious (just like most humans)?
I’d call it breaking the rule of commensurate technologies. Most science fiction movies break the rule, so it’s really not a point of movie criticism. It’s an observation about credibility.
That brings up a point I mentioned above about the society and psychology of the aliens. For example, it is shown in the movie that the aliens have very sophisticated, and powerful, hand weapons. The humans are afraid they might use them. Yet apparently there is no similar but larger scale weaponry built into the mothership. A species that needs handguns, doesn’t know how to make a howitzer? This is not only a problem for commensurate technology, its a psycho-social problem.
We’re given ample demonstration that the aliens have emotions and sensitivities. In fact, while they may not respond to exactly the same kinds of stimuli as humans, their general reactions are very similar. We see they are aware of inequality in resources (some are poor, some not). They know injustice and they have crime. They understand cruelty and kindness. They have families and bonds of relationships. We even know they can get angry and throw humans fifty feet through the air. Then why have they not rebelled – given the shitty treatment and disrespect doled out by their human captors? Why haven’t they formed a resistance? In fact, do they even has a social structure?
These are intresting questions to which the movie is obviously oblivious. It’s not interested in scientific questions about the aliens. Why, for example, has no one bothered to translate the alien language? No linguists in South Africa? I suspect it’s because the Prawns are really stand-ins for oppressed peoples. The movie is uninterested in their social reality, or the contradictions between their technical capability and their social relationship to humans.
It could be said, “Who cares? It’s a movie.” Granted, there’s little time in a single movie to develop an alien culture. District 9 wants to give us a few clues, and let it go at that. Some, including me, think this undercuts the desired impact of the movie. Others won’t even be aware there’s something missing; bodies explode and that’s good enough.