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In a hot summer of universe-trotting, alien-centric battling blockbusters, one looks to other genres than science fiction for the smallest trace of intellectual, ethical, or even emotional gravity. But in a bad economy, independent film funds dry up, and great scripts shrivel on the vine. Infected with financial anxiety, major movie studios hesitate to take dramatic risks in the theater. They order tent pole films that sell seats on the promissory note of a cheap thrill. In this climate, the robotic fantasies of thirteen-year-old boys rule the cinema—and the content of these films is something less than cerebral. In August, at the seasonal peak of all this Adornian prophetic depravity, along comes director Neill Blomkamp—a sort of messianic director who promises to bridge the gap between blockbuster drudge and artistically legitimate filmmaking.

His film, District 9, is a dark drama that flips the familiar “alien raider” story on its head. Gone is the “Independence Day” shoot-em-up utopia, where militaries roll out tank battalions and fighter jets to stop aliens who fixate on wiping the White House (and other cenotaphs of the American spirit) off the face of the planet. Instead, human beings are the ones who threaten, incarcerate, and brutalize the aliens who seem to have arrived on our tiny planet by pure accident. Rather than landing like Vikings in New York City with the usual thunder and plunder, they assume the role of hapless refugees in Joburg, South Africa. This nuance separates District 9 from its more orthodox Syfy cousins.

Not only does the film perform the difficult duty of innovating its rather vintage genre, but it also makes a controversial political commentary. Placing a film about detainment and racism in South Africa necessarily evokes the analogy of Apartheid. Apartheid (Afrikaans for separateness or apart-hood) is the term for institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa—a segregation that lasted nearly half a century (1948-1991) and produced rebellious luminaries like Nelson Mandela. The marketing campaign for District 9 (e.g. signs on bus stops barring non-humans, beaches restricted to human use only) eerily reminds one of pre-civil rights America. But I hesitate to applaud the film for using this emotional history to mobilize its own thematic purposes. In an exploitative move, District 9 tempts us to think, but fails to deliver on that seduction. Blomkamp, a white South African born in 1979, should probably know better.

Paradoxically, in his world of foreign detainees, there is very little room for natives—that is to say, very little room for humanity. The white protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharto Copley), is an over-eager, nepotistic klutz who never quite loses his selfish streak. Although ostensibly anti-segregation, the film operates on the same racial stereotypes that inspire segregation in the first place. For example, the most prominent black figure in the film is pagan Nigerian gangster who ritualistically consumes flesh (at the behest of his witch doctor), believing this practice will transform him into an alien himself. I can’t help but imagine that the white Afrikaners who hated the blacks during Apartheid had a similar caricature in their head of all black Africans. Mandela would cringe at the cartoonish felon. Blomkamp acts incautiously with the most powerful white figure as well (who is not the protagonist, as one might expect, but a quintessential Dutch brute, complete with goatee, uncontrollable temper, and hand grenades). He and his military force are at odds with both the Nigerians and aliens. Eventually, the situation explodes. Literally.

For this reason, the latter part of the film devolves into a juvenile action flick. Explosions aren’t bad in themselves, but the director could have spent less time nuking bad guys and more time delving into their emotional and intellectual motivations. We don’t know why the Nigerians gangsters are gangsters, nor why the Dutch brutes want to shoot every Nigerian, alien, or hybrid race they see. He keeps the characters at a distance. We know nothing “real” about them. The white protagonist himself helps the aliens not out of concern for their wellbeing but out of an intense desire to be rid of them. And only when they could offer him something does he try to help. The alien internment camps are the spitting image of black South African shanty camps. Is this how Blomkamp sees racial integration?

One can chalk this negligence up to studio interference, historical ignorance, or laziness, but no speculation will excuse the fact that the film has a subversive underbelly. Segregation is never quite condemned—only pseudo-excused by vacuous caricatures of humanity. Although historically messy, District 9 is nonetheless exciting, and the summertime moviegoer is far better off sitting under two hours of Blomkamp’s apocalyptic imagination than attending the virtual pogrom blasting through the next-door theater’s walls. If that’s not explicit enough; I’m publicly condemning Transformers 2.

Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.

Images courtesy TriStar films.

Comments

You are absolutely spot on with this review. With all the pieces in place, this could have been a great Apartheid allegory, but nothing was done to draw them all together or make a point. Worse than that was the other haphazardly thrown around social satire of the first half: the evil super-corporation, the inadequacies/tragic flaws of refugee camps (lack of resources/jobs, camps becoming militarized internment, temporary becoming permanent, ghettofication...), 24/7 media coverage. I knew from the beginning that too much had been bitten off, there was no way to adequately address all of these topics brought up in the first 30 min, but you're right, not even the largest was acknowledged in the second half. But I do question your recommendation of this over T2: was it all the bad acting? The lack of inspiration elicited by our protagonist? The really cliched crustacean alien? Great CGI gone poorly wrong (you could barely tell human from alien in shared scenes- which was amazing, but why did they move so oddly/look so fake that it emphasized the contrast?) Or, was it the cat food (!?) obsession- whomever thought that up should be shot (what a crappy Kafka allusion). At least T2 gave you what was promised- some cool destinations (Petra), Maghan Fox, some great CGI/Battles/chase scenes, AND the added bonus of Isabel Lucas (as pissed off as I was to learn that Decepticons could turn into humans...). I am just confused over the love District 9 has been getting. With all of the intellectual possibilities of the script wasted, the action being shoddy, and all the other short comings, what is its redeeming quality that has hooked you all? Just that you didn't have to suffer as long as T2?

-Z

Watch the movie again. Try to enjoy it without over analysing it. Try to get over the fact that it does not contain young, impossibly hot female actors. Realise that this movie has amazingly broad appeal and is in fact an amazing movie.

It WILL be a classic of the genre and in years to come when your bloggin to nobody how great it is you will feel like a hypocrite.

Don't sweat it just FYI.

wow. WOW.

this is such a... stupid... comment.
i'm just awed.

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The film is a mirror. Just like La régle du jeu, it mirrors the society, the people who watch it. The film isn't racist, we are.

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I can appreciate a good dissenting opinion to the collective critical opinion. I'm glad to hear a review, such as this, where a writer takes time to consider a film garnering acclaim to describe and critique what he or she sees as an overlooked. But, I think questioning the film as racist is hasty and an incomplete assessment of the film based on its peripheral content, forgetting the phenomenal imagination of the relationship of the self and the other at the center of the film.
At this time, I'd warn anyone "cruising the boards" that I'm going to discuss a central element of the film that is a bit of a surprise -- which is how jerkwads with expensive diplomas say: "Spoiler Alert"
That Wikus (played spectacularly by Sharlto Copley) encounters the alien substance and undergoes his physical transformation from human being to alien is, I think, the film's essence and any discussion of the self relating to the other ought to revolve around that, not the peripheral parts of the film.
Yes, the Nigerian animists do unfairly take the most prominent role of any black African, and the white South Africans are brutish caricatures. But, the protagonist's entire character development hinges on the transformation of self into the other. Wikus, a seemingly compassionate person to the aliens, is tested beyond the limits of his ideological sympathies, and we watch this fumbling bureaucrat go from politically compassionate to terrified to self-interested to someone possibly self-sacrificial.
District 9 seems anything but negligent, nor is it filled with "vacuous caricatures of humanity." I found it raw in its portrayal of inequality and careful in its treatment of its central characters. That the final hybridized shot of Wikus with one alien eye and another human eye seems to me to evoke a sense that his link between the two worlds is about seeing with both eyes, lending himself the kind of vision necessary to perceive beyond stereotyping and inequality, a sort of incarnational compassion.

Joel, with such an extremely critical and appreciative eye of Wikus's story line (his transformation was very well done, and the movie's only redeeming quality), it surprises me that you don't also resent some of the basic caricatures presented: what was delicate/well done about the father, the corporation, the Dutch mercenary, the gangsters? All were so uni-dimensional it was almost offensive. Wikus' relationship/interactions with his wife were unconvincing and even what could have been a good ending (the metal flowers) failed to evoke any emotional response. I enjoyed the friction between Wikus's idealism and real encounter when presenting notice of eviction, but the slow development of conflict was lost, as Wikus (and the viewer) was thrown into an extreme confrontation during his transformation- but how successful was that? Specie transformation is an unfair arena to test the solidity of idealism. Wikus does not merely gain experience of an oppressed racial identity, but of a whole new life form. Unjust discrimination is unjust, but to try and apply that to an unfamiliar life form is a bit unfair.

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I liked this film first and foremost as a piece of science fiction and I appreciated that it didn't seem to intend to beat us over the head with social commentary. The result of that restraint is, however, that the message isn't entirely clear. So if Harper truly approached the film expecting Blomkamp to deliver something "messianic," it is no surprise his hopes were dashed.

I think the case made for District 9 as racist is weak. Do the Nigerians come off badly? Perhaps, but there is nothing objectionable about the connection between an impoverished class and their criminal exploitation, whether it involve food, drugs, violence, and so on. Those connections exist, right? The critique here isn't racist, it just isn't nuanced.

And the dutch mercenaries? Perhaps they too come off badly, though I was unaware there was a stereotype concerning bloodthirsty Dutchmen to begin with. At any rate, in the latter case the mercenaries take their orders from the people Wikus' father in law works for, and so the head mercenary is not in fact the most powerful white figure. I don't think there is anything more there than that mercenaries are often uncivil types who enjoy killing, whether they are themselves Dutch, African, American (as in Tarantino's new one) or whatever else you've seen in movies. And again, those types do exist and we just wish their motives were better explained, right?

If we consider what both the Nigerians and the men in suits want, the power of the alien weaponry, the more 'offensive' features of the Nigerians can be explained. The men in suits are vicious in their use of the amoral power of 'modern' science to try to harness it and the Nigerians try to obtain it through 'traditional' mystical practices like cannibalism and witchcraft. Put this way, one could think the film is suggesting that the desire for power and domination is at the root of technological science and mystic religion and more human than either. While one could then well wonder whether that is true, it hardly seems racist.

Like Joel's post, possible spoilers now follow. Putting it more strongly than Joel, it is certainly an error to declare the film a racist critique of racism while wholly neglecting the transformation of Wikus. To mention just a few things about him, Joel is wrong about his compassion. Early in the film Wikus is excited to tell us about the popcorn sound of the alien babies burning alive, and in his first meeting with Christopher he basically says "we've got a smarter one here" and that they need to be subtler in tricking him to move into what Wikus later admits is basically a concentration camp. He has the soft, institutionalized hatred of the administrative class comfortably distanced from those they rule. But then, after exposure, he is greatly disturbed by having been compelled to kill a random prawn by the suits during the weapons tests (yet Wikus does not at all identify himself as one of them, or show any desire to seek the aliens' good rather than his own). Later, he is able to understand Christopher's paralyzing shock in the lab and reminds him he has to remember his son (and here Wikus is still clearly seeking his own good). It is only in the action sequence, in the machine, that he has the pivotal moment where he decides to try and save Christopher at what he thinks will likely be his own expense. This is meant to be redemptive and I think that within the confines of the kind of film it is, it's pretty effective.

Finally, to the extent we enjoy the action half of the film and root for Wikus and Christopher, it seems to me we do so on the basis of a guilty conscience, on the basis of the thought that humans who act so unjustly deserve to die. This is why I think, in contrast to Anthony, the flower ending is important. If Wikus wholly accepts his transformation, the expression of human self-hatred would be complete: acting as we do (and have done in places like South Africa), it is better be a different kind of being than we are. But Wikus holds on to his human love of his wife and hopes to see her again, which suggests human beings aren't hopeless.

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RACISM>>>How on earth can the name of the gang be the ''THE NIGERIANS'' !! Gangs always have a name like crips, bloods etc..In this movie simply the nigerians WTF!!! What is the directors idea!! Dat we will not notice his portrayal of a country with over 140million people and the most annoying part is how throughout the movie they keep drumming in THE NIGERIANS!!! Making Us seem like a bunch of ignorant, bloodsucking savages,greedy, stupid,evil cannibals!!!
Is he tellin the nigerian public that he couldnt think of another name for the gang or is he just a xenophobic racist!! I think the latter applies!!

Dude, crips and bloods? What the F are you talking about?
As for "The Nigerians"? Its a pretty good gang name considering they were the only people in district 9 besides the government(?), media and Wikkus' corporate military.

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Saw D9 a few days ago. Read the interview if you haven't yet: http://bit.ly/KjTQS

In it, NB suggests that the apartheid allegory was not the purpose of the movie. Of course his life experience influences his style (and this will be the most personal film he directs) but its clear that overanalyzing the analogies between the world of D9 and apartheid is fruitless. It breaks down because sticking to that framework of condemning segregation turns the film into another humanist polemic — not a badass alien movie.

I think that if the peripheral characters were any more fleshed out, the frenetic pace that propelled the movie would have been lost. That, frankly, would have sucked. Stereotypes are nice because we can place all of our pent-up prejudices on them without the footage of the backstory.

Kind of funny, I was talking to someone recently who suggested that they didn't want to see this again because they didn't know who to root for in the end. It's a little hard to hear a story where every single character is motivated by self-interest, but I think the core of the film is Wikus' shift from self-interest to self-sacrifice, the catalyst being the genetically-altered new perspective.

Calling the climax a "juvenile action flick" seems to suggest that you weren't impressed by the editing of the action sequences (2001, this aint). Personally, I thought it was sensory overload in the best way — borrowing the mixed-format editing that I started noticing in Slumdog and mixing it with both shiny, stainless CGI technology and the organic repulsiveness of the prawns. The Saving-Private-Ryan/Gears of War running handheld camera work evoked visions of Fallujah.

I love switching between the different resolutions (security cameras, cinema lenses, etc) because I feel like I automatically re-evaluate the credibility of the information based on the source. For example, you take the cinematic shots as pure truth and objectivity, but a security camera shot from in the MNU building seems untrustworthy. I would love to see a film that played with that more. Maybe it's The Conversation?

If you wanted good vs. evil, look elsewhere. If you wanted Asimov/Sagan/Bradbury, look elsewhere. All in all, I loved the experience in a theater. I give it 4/5 stars and bonus points for being one of the few movies I've seen that pulls off a robotic-bullet-catch-to-multiple-kill-counterattack AND remains relatively unmoralizing.

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District 9 was evil vs. evil. The poor are reactive and destructive because they have no leader. Eventually the whole world will be like that once we have few enough resources. Blomkamp talked somewhere about how black South Africans murder so many Zimbabweans fleeing into SA to escape Mugabe. Both white and black South Africans prey on other groups of people because of limited resources. That's the kind of world he had in mind when he was making his movie.

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