District 9: Rush Hour + Apartheid x 1 Mech

The buzz  surrounding District 9 sang of innovation and unexpected delights. According to the IMDB, Peter Jackson gave director Neill Blomkamp $30 million dollars to do whatever he wanted, so impressive was Blomkamp’s Halo test footage. This kind of back story and buzz had me expecting something subversive, perhaps even a little extreme. Instead, District 9 is a very familiar film, filled to the brim with movie clichés tried and true.

District 9 begins as a pseudo-documentary explaining the events that occurred in Johannesburg, South Africa when an alien ship shows up one day in 1982. It just hovers there for three months until someone gets the bright idea to open it up, wherein they find about a million malnourished aliens. These aliens are taken and put into camps(the titular District 9), and apparently right after that everybody said, “Yeah, we know we’re not alone in the universe, but I still got bills to pay.” So the aliens are ignored, they cause trouble, become second class citizens. The action picks up in 2010, when a group of private government contractors are enlisted to evict all of the alien inhabitants of District 9 and move them to other government housing. During this we are introduced to Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a diminutive pushover who is promoted to lead the evictions. Wikus is being followed by a documentary crew, and he comes across a little like Tim from the original British version of The Office. But the film was already starting to lose me here because instead of sticking with the documentary footage following Wikus around, the film cuts away to scenes that are not in the documentary style, and bare little to no difference in visual appearance. A couple times I caught myself thinking, “How did the documentary guys film this?” before realizing we had moved away from that footage. After about 20 or so minutes of the film, after a particular plot point, the film abandons the documentary camera entirely. This begs the question whether it was necessary to begin with. It felt like a gimmick to me, and only worked to clutter what could have been a more streamlined opening.

(Massive Spoilers Ahead)

The big plot point is when Wikus is sprayed with a black liquid which slowly begins changing him into an alien. This got a chuckle out of me, as I had figured from the commercials that the big secret of District 9 was either some insidious plan by the aliens to kill humankind or that humans were actually experimenting on the aliens. As it turns out, I was half right. When Wikus’s physical changes are revealed(not before much vomiting and Dumb and Dumberesque diarrhea SFX), he’s cordoned off by the very company that employs him. Turns out, the weapons(of course, weapons) that belong to the aliens can only be fired by the aliens due to their design.  This leads to an agonizing and effective scene where Wikus is forced to fire confiscated alien weapons at various targets, including a captive live alien. At this point, District 9 has abandoned the original narrative of the injustices placed against the aliens(also called “prawns”) and has shifted to Wikus’s plight. He manages to escape captivity just as he’s about to be chopped up for experimental purposes, fleeing the apparently not guarded at all facility.  This is where the film becomes very familiar.

Wikus attempts to get food from a burger joint when a television in the room interrupts for breaking news! “Have you seen this man? (picture of Wikus) He is dangerous, he had sex with aliens and is highly contagious.” Forced to flee, Wikus takes refuge in District 9, all while attempting to make contact with his wife via cellphone, who he initially can’t reach because her evil father, who runs the very company trying to dissect Wikus, is doing everything in his power to prevent the two from speaking.  This leads to teary phone call between Van De Merwe and his wife, wherein Wikus makes some promises he knows he can’t keep and the tone is downright grave. Sure, the Breaking News bit was tired, but now we’re back to serious town. Not so, as Wikus stumbles back into the home of the prawn whose tube of black liquid caused Wikus to change in the first place. Wikus and the prawn, who is actually named Christopher Johnson(I know!), engage in some dialogue that anyone who has seen a mismatched duo comedy or action movie in the last 20 years will find very familiar. This continues for the rest of the running time. District 9 has scenes that are just rewrites of old tropes, including the “gotta get some weapons” scene, the “I thought you gave up on me” scene, and the super smart little kid.

Or how about this old chestnut-

Interior: (Wikus and Christopher Johnson are surrounded, pinned down by enemy gunfire. CJ approaches a table of random prawn tech and begins assembling a device.)

Wikus: (Exasperated) “What are you building?”

Christopher Johnson: “A bomb.”

KABOOM! (Wikus and Christopher Johnson escape)

I could also mention the discussion where Wikus and CJ decide to storm the enemy base to steal back the liquid that turned Wikus into a prawn. “I thought you said it was a suicide mission.” Lethal Weapon 5 up in here.

I’m aware that all the stories are written and that everything is a rehash of everything else, but District 9 has been advertised and hyped as a change from the norm. Instead, it’s the same stuff we’ve always been watching, but with more exploding heads; bodies blown into mush splatting against the camera lens. There is even a mech at one point, which is when I realized  Blomkamp actually wanted to focus on bloody action. These action scenes are refreshingly coherent and gory as hell, but they had to sacrifice an interesting premise.

The disappointment I feel with District 9 rests mainly on the fact that when given carte blanche by Peter Jackson to make any film he wanted, Neill Blomkamp wanted to make a generic action movie. In a way, District 9‘s closest cinematic sibling is Rambo from 2008. While Stallone based it around the genocide in Burma, its actually about Rambo shooting soldiers until they liquefy. It appears that District 9 is a trenchant examination of apartheid, but really it’s about a gun fights where people explode a lot.  Of course the evil corporation wants to use the weapons. But is anyone curious about the aspects of space flight? Somebody built that space ship that can apparently hover for 28 years without filling up a gas tank, wouldn’t that be something worth exploring? No, instead we have a mech fight.

District 9 ends on a somber note with a tone of impending doom. It could be argued that the ending is just “keeping it real”, but the since the bulk of the film is so reliant on action movie clichés and tired dialogue, it plays like a pose.  The lack of answered questions, the over reliance on action in the second half seems to indicate that Neill Blomkamp isn’t the next great big screen innovator, but just another in a long line of people who can blow shit up good.  Good work if you can get it, but don’t we have enough of these guys already?

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One Response to “District 9: Rush Hour + Apartheid x 1 Mech”

  1. District 9, a Sentient and Smart Sci-Fi Movie | PlasmaFire.org Says:

    […] 2 seconds, all while giving the “no duh” treatment to Wikus (thanks for the reminder, Bad Guys Win) – One seriously fast, realistic, and “I MUST get inspiration from that!” single-seater […]

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