When I first saw the previews for this movie a couple of months ago, I was instantly excited about it. It feels like it’s been forever since we got a truly thoughtful and original science fiction film (not counting Star Trek, or whatever else it is you’re about to tell me I’m forgetting), and this one looked like it was going to be both those things, wrapped up in a tidy bundle with some wicked special effects sprinkled on top to boot. Then a few weeks ago, the reviews started to roll in, most of them so madly in love with District 9 they were practically making out with the thing right there in print. Jeebus, get a room, Schwarzbaum.
By the time the film opened in theaters two weekends ago, I could barely contain my anticipation. I went into the theater last week all abounce with glee, waiting to be completely blown away by its originality, intelligence, poignancy, political relevance, visuals, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum (but never nauseum).
As it turns out, this movie IS pretty intelligent, poignant, and politically relevant. It’s also as visually stunning as the previews made me think it would be. But it didn’t blow me away, I have to confess, and if you’ve been paying attention, you already know why. The descriptive noun that didn’t make it into my list at the start of this paragraph? “Originality.” More on that in a moment, though.
The story opens with a back-story — in 1989, a spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, and just sat there, not moving, not beeping, not flashing lights, not playing the theme from Close Encounters, nada. After watching it do nothing for a couple of months, the South Africans got bored and decided to fly up to it, chop a hole in the side, and take a look. Inside, they were startled to discover thousands of aliens huddled together, starving to death. They “rescued” the alien creatures, nicknamed “Prawns” because of their crustacean appearance (and because that’s a derogatory term in South Africa), and brought them down to a slummy township referred to as District 9.
At first, township life was primarily a muddled scramble aimed at getting the Prawns healthy and situated, but as time passed (and reproduction kept building the population), District 9 rapidly began to fill up and then overflow with aliens. Not wanting them to scatter to the far corners of the country (for their own safety, they said, with a wink and a nudge), the South African government built a fence around District 9 and began to patrol it with the military. But overcrowded slums lead to hunger and desperation, which almost always lead to crime. Crime in turn leads to violence. Violence then to fear. And fear then to hate. And by the time we’ve entered the present day, the Prawns are universally loathed by most of the South Africans who live around them.
As the film opens, we meet our protagonist, a bumbling government employee named Wikus (Sharlton Copley) who has been “promoted” to the job of relocating the Prawns from District 9 to a new “improved” (wink, nudge) township further away from civilization, District 10. As part of the relocation, every Prawn must read and sign an agreement that hands over their homes, such as they are, to the government, because what are governments for if not extraneous paperwork and the addition of insult to injury?
Wikus and a film crew enter District 9 with the stack of forms, and as he progresses from infuriated Prawn to infuriated Prawn, the vapid Wikus (say it fast, it’s fun!) smiles and grins as he casually points out dissenting Prawns being beaten or shot and then cheerfully helps engineer the destruction of an enormous stack of Prawn eggs (babies!), like they’re nothing at all.
As Wikus goes through the slum, he’s also on the lookout for Prawn technology. The Prawns came to Earth with tons of weaponry genetically developed to work only if a Prawn is firing it, and the humans have been trying to find and re-engineer any and all Prawn technology they can get their hands on. Discovery of a big cache of weapons or other cool stuff would be a huge boon for Wikus’s career, so when he stumbles across a mysterious object in one of the shacks, he picks it up to examine it more closely. Gee, what is this mysterious object? Let me put my face right up close to it and see what it. . . gah! The object promptly sprays Wikus in the face with some kind of nasty brown fluid. A nasty brown fluid we later learn not only can be used to power the space ship, but also has the unfortunate side effect of turning exposed humans into aliens. Think The Fly, only grosser, believe it or not.
Unfortunately, from this point forward in the film, every single plot element progresses exactly as you’d expect it to, with almost nothing in the way of surprises. Anybody who watches science fiction movies in which alien beings interact with humans could’ve written this script with one hand tied behind their backs, frankly (a couple I thought of while watching: Enemy Mine, Alien Nation, the 80’s miniseries V, etc.). I mean, of course the brown fluid makes Wikus start turning into the very creatures he so detests. Of course he ends up having to go back to District 9, this time for help instead of for destruction. Of course his own people turn on him when they see what he’s become. Of course he learns a lesson about judging a biological entity by its exoskeleton. Everything you think is going to happen, does, and that includes Wikus’s ultimate conversion from predator to prey. The way the humans interact with the aliens is as predictably obtuse, paternalistic, and cruel as you’d expect. The way the Prawns respond is as predictably sympathy-inducing, right down to their cute little kids and the way they dote on them, awww. The actual plot develops exactly how you expect it to, and there are no twists you won’t see coming from a mile away.
THAT SAID, as much a disappointment as it always is when I see a movie that I thought was going to be unique and original and instead turns out to be this derivative, there were a lot of things I truly liked about this film, and it should be noted that I had a really good time watching it too.
For one thing, though the first ten minutes or so of the movie orient you immediately to the film’s “message,” it’s not nearly as heavy-handed as I feared it might be. The fact the story is set in South Africa, home of apartheid, is certainly no coincidence (nor is the fact it’s named District 9, which is just like District 6, historic home of the “Cape Coloureds,” but turned upside-down), but its relevance expands to include the situations of refugees and displaced persons all over the world. Watching the government guards taunt and beat the refugees for kicks, watching them humiliate and offend with glee, seeing the desperation of the hungry, the pleading in the black market lines, etc. — this is something happening right now to people in cultures all around the world. It even made me think of the Iraqi citizens we’ve arrested and held in prison camps indefinitely — the way we abuse them, humiliate them, treat them like they are animals, etc.
I also appreciated that Wikus didn’t immediately have a change of heart the moment he began to realize he needed the Prawns’ help in order to save himself. In fact, it’s not really until the final moments of the movie that you begin to see a change in his personality. That was kind of unexpected, I will confess (I was waiting for the cheesy epiphany), and I really appreciated the authenticity of that delay.
Also, the acting in this film is wonderful — this was Sharlto Copley’s first feature film role and I was completely blown away by him. The movie is darkly comic as well, which I didn’t expect (for example, half the theater laughed out loud when we discovered the resident scam artists were Nigerians). Though I wasn’t that impressed by the look of the aliens themselves (they’re people with shells, essentially), the other special effects in the movie were pretty good.
Overall, I enjoyed District 9, but am a bit boggled as to why all the science fiction lovers I know are so madly in love with it. I got incredibly impatient in the final act and wish the movie had been about 20 minutes shorter than it was, with fewer shoot-outs and standard action shots. It’s politically relevant and thought-provoking, but ultimately, that part of it was overshadowed for me by the disappointment I felt when I realized the actual progression of the story was going to be so cliché. The film ends with a scene clearly intended to signal a sequel — but while I’ll definitely be planning to see that sequel (District 10, perhaps?), I’ll probably wait for DVD.
Genre: Science Fiction
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, William Allen Young