Near the end of District 9, the main character, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), points to a wedding day photograph of his wife and wistfully comments on the halo effect created by her veil. I wondered if this was a not so subtle reference by director Neill Blomkamp to the fact that his new sci-fi drama was really a consolation prize for not helming the big screen version of Halo.
I can understand why for some the “shockumentary” approach used in The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield, and Quarantine has become tired. But I must confess that I haven’t yet gotten bored with it. Making excellent use of the faux documentary style, District 9’s first forty minutes are strong and suggest that its storyline concerning maltreated alien refugees—a staple Star Trek plot—will be used as an intelligent allegory to explore bureaucratic ineptitude, greed (both corporate and individual) and xenophobia. However, try as it might, the film just can’t find a way to keep all of those plates spinning at once and descends into the realm of garden variety action yarns.
District 9 is an expanded version of Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg (see below) about a relocation camp set up in Johannesburg to house the alien inhabitants from a number of spacecraft which mysteriously appear over the city. The segregated nature and squalid condition of the camps present a clear metaphor for South Africa’s apartheid system. While the new version only shows one immense ship, it boasts impressive looking CGI aliens as well as a broader, more multifaceted view of the of the camp itself, the inhabitants, the people who run it, and the subcultures springing up around it. As a result, District 9 starts strongly down a path which indicates that it will tackle broader thematic issues.
Presented in a series of news clips and talking head interviews, the film recounts the arrival of a huge alien craft that hovers over Johannesburg some twenty years previously. Watching it float there for three years without providing a single clue as to where it came from or why it’s here, world authorities impatiently take matters into their own hands. Flying up in helicopters, they cut their way into the ship. Once inside, large numbers of dead and dying alien passengers are discovered. The passengers are ferried down to earth and placed in a relocation camp named “District 9” that consists of a collection of Spartan metal huts. In the ensuing two decades, what started out as a “humanitarian” effort degenerates into an oppressive situation for the aliens (referred to as “prawns”) who become the impoverished victims of a sadistic, quasi-military police force, opportunistic Nigerian thugs, a covetous corporate contractor, and resentful local citizens.
Wikus Van De Merwe is a mid-level executive for Multi-National United (MNU), a private company that wins a Haliburton-like contract to manage the alien settlement camps. He is promoted to supervise the displacement of prawns from a run-down District 9 into the supposedly newer, more hospitable District 10. Van De Merwe gets this plumb assignment because his father-in-law, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) is the company head of MNU. However, interviewee testimony makes it clear at the outset that Van De Merwe is destined to suffer a failure of tragic proportions both personally and professionally.
In early scenes, the bumbling Van De Merwe comes across like a European Michael Scott as he tries to coordinate his resources. The first step in the relocation program is pure red tape and involves the process of gathering sign offs or “scrolls” from each prawn indicting their acknowledgment of the move. Mismanagement abounds as epitomized by a shortage of flack vests that, to the humorous consternation of Van De Merwe’s assistant, prevents each team member from entering the camp properly equipped.
That the best interest of the aliens are clearly not in anyone’s mind is firmly established when, upon finding a nest of alien eggs, Van De Merwe laughingly demonstrates an “abortion” for the camera by disconnecting prawn larvae from their food source before ordering the hut immolated by flame throwers. Blomkamp’s awareness of his audience is evidenced by Van De Merwe’s vivid description comparing the sound of the burning eggs to popcorn popping (a bag of which many theatergoers surely have on their laps at the time).
For me, the movie begins its turn for the worse when Van De Merwe sprays himself with a strange black liquid while confiscating an unfamiliar tube-shaped alien device. Here Blomkamp diverges from the established documentary style and uses more traditional methods of exposition to provide a rudimentary explanation for the prawn device. An important alien character, curiously referred to as “Christopher Johnson,” and his young offspring are also introduced.
I get the impression that Blomkamp simply decided that there was no way to tell all of District 9’s story in a straight documentary format. The shift in approach is disappointing enough. However, that disappointment is compounded for me by the change in tone presented in these traditionally shot scenes. The alien dialog, shown in subtitles, is pedestrian at best and contains lines approaching banality such as “This ruins twenty year’s worth of work.” I realize that Bloomkamp is establishing what he thinks are essential story points. But I felt that instead of letting the puzzle pieces organically reveal themselves, the director simply takes an easy shortcut.
Also, Johnson’s offspring is depicted as precocious and cute. He (I assume it’s a he) plays with “fun,” high-tech gadgets that I’d expect to see in sci-fi outings aimed at children, not an “R” rated one. Furthermore, Blomkamp borrows, sometimes blatantly, from other sci-fi action films (The Fly, Alien, The Terminator, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk) and shoe-horns them, with varying degrees of success, into District 9.
After the effects of the black liquid start to alter Van De Merwe’s DNA, MNU’s hidden agenda is revealed. Instead of simply making a very lucrative living off his District 10 contract, Smit also wants to profit from the commercialization of captured alien weaponry. This story element is not only stale (for instance, it shows up in EVERY Alien movie), but creates a rather large plot hole. Because of their sophisticated alien technology, only a prawn can fire a prawn weapon. Try as they might, MNU just can’t get the damn things to work. However, we never see the subjugated prawns taking up arms against their brutal oppressors. As characterized, the aliens are certainly feisty enough. And they clearly have advanced weaponry at their disposal. Yet, incredulously, no resistance movement ever seems to materialize.
Van De Merwe’s exposure to the DNA altering substance is a boon to Smit’s plans. His willingness to literally eviscerate the love of his daughter’s life for monetary gain turns Smit into a stock two-dimensional villain. Another hackneyed character is the shaven head mercenary for MNU who often wastes valuable killing opportunities “dialoguing” with his targets. He’s also always one step ahead of any personal danger so that the threat his character represents can be conveniently maintained. Throwing in some Nigerian warlords with a taste for prawn flesh and a full body alien battle suit, Bloomkamp ends up with something that’s closer to a graphic novel than social commentary.
Thus, District 9, which had initially engaged me as a unique and entertaining sci-fi vehicle, morphs into a standard (albeit entertaining) chase thriller à la The Fugitive with the Van De Merwe character functioning as a sort of cross between the innocent Dr. Kimball and the “one-armed man.” Like the “halo” comment mentioned above, this last reference is something that I also wonder if Bloomkamp wasn’t deliberately aware of.
Alive in Joburg:
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.