Movie Review: District 9

Meta: Better write this before I forget everything. Also, I seem to not be able to decide whether reviews are classified as Life or Thoughts on Chigaijin, but that doesn’t really matter since most of you will read this on Facebook anyway.

District 9: A relatively original movie that stands out from everything else that makes it to mainstream. In order to review it properly, this post will have spoilers. If you are NOT OKAY with that, read the rest of this paragraph and then leave. District 9 was, to put it succinctly, “interesting, but not entertaining”. Also, if you are disturbed by gory action (most of it slightly over-the-top, which saved me), you may want to skip this movie.

If you are still reading but mind spoilers, UR DOIN IT RONG.

Setup: The backstory for District 9 was pretty original. Rather than humans dealing with aliens as friendly or hostile equals or superiors, they are the ones who have to help their visitors. And not just like in ET; this is a whole shipload of people who are dying and have little to directly offer the human race. In addition, the story was set not in the US or even the UK, but in Johannesburg, South Africa. Basically, they’re not afraid to start off with a totally different premise.

Plot (high-level): Sadly, the plot turns out to be a rather stale offering: main character represents oppressors, feels he’s doing the right thing in the long run, undergoes some incident that alienates him from his own side, seeks refuge with the oppressed, finds they are much more humane (ha ha) than his own people, regrets what he’s done but does one last asshole thing, which doesn’t work, and finally sides with the oppressed against the oppressors, displaying bravery and self-sacrifice in the process. Sorry, not original.

Plot (low-level): The plot is just as flawed when looked at on a smaller scale. There are a number of plotholes: since Christopher was never caught before making it back to his house, why couldn’t he take the fuel? why does fuel turn humans into aliens anyway? why do aliens have compatible enough chemistry for this kind of melding? In addition, there are the movie equivalent of the “quick time events” found in video games which Yahtzee is always ranting about: lucky coincidences. I’m talking about where all the bullets miraculously leave Christopher alive, or how the Bad Guy Soldier (whose name I forget but isn’t important) takes like five minutes savoring his chance to kill Wikus. The Incredibles parodies this (“You caught me monologuing!”), and a few movies (The Terminator, for one) manage to avoid these almost completely. District 9 is full of them. Finally, there are several questions raised which are never answered: why Johannesburg? why were the aliens starving to begin with? what do they make all the weapons out of? why wait twenty years to go back? and more. They made you feel like this was a story about Humans and Aliens (Self and Other as groups, for Candace), but it turned out it was a story about Wikus and maybe Christopher. Leaving things like these hanging would be fine in a short film (or short story), but is a little unsatisfying for a full-length movie.

Characters: The characters varied greatly in terms of quality. For the most part, all of the characters were very realistic, even if they also played storytelling roles (repentent protagonist, foreign ally, evil mastermind, sadistic henchman, etc.). Everything they did was very much driven by some aspect of human nature, and it’s that sort of truth that makes me respect the characters. (At least the tired plot is driven by decisions all coming from the characters themselves, and remaining in character here.) And everyone likes Christopher’s kid.

World: Also very well filled in. The existence of MNU, the conflict between the humanitarian administrators and the military forces, the black market dealers. And the alien-related stuff, too. Giving them human names, referring to them as “prawns”, population control…all of these are things that have happened in real life concerning one group of humans taking control of another group. Very good universe formation. The language barrier is dodged in a reasonable manner—they never mention it, and we assume 20 years is enough for each group to learn enough of the other’s language. Similarly, occasionally some aliens would show decidedly human emotional responses, but I’m okay with that—this is something else that could have easily been picked up over 20 years.

One note, though: the denomination of the black-marketeers as “Nigerians”, associating them with cannibalism and exploitation, is a bit unfortunate. Not that I know the political state of Nigeria right now, but it’s a blanket statement that people might not see as part of the irony of the film. (I’m not sure how much it is.) Besides, Nigerians have a bad enough record from the bank scam spam e-mails we’ve probably all gotten (though it’s died off of late).

Okay, two notes: I also found it a bit offensive that there were subtitles for some clips of moderately heavily accented English. I admit, however, that I am oversensitive to such things, and that the person I saw it with didn’t realize there was any such use of unnecessary subtitles. So perhaps this is not a point worth making.

Alien Design: Same atmosphere and food? Pretty unlikely, but without it there’d be no story. (“We cut into their ship and found it full of methane; a few weeks and they were all dead. Then we were stuck with this big floating tomb over Johannesburg.”) Human body plan? Really unlikely, even with the tail (but possibly necessary plotwise for the transformation to work). I guess I’m willing to let it slide, since they followed through pretty well with the decisions they made and did a good job with the alien movements (active and subtle). (The “our planet has higher gravity” comment, though, while nicely consistent, was really just showing off on the part of the writer(s). “See, we know what the best reason for their superhuman strength is! This is real sci-fi!”)

Cinematography/Directing: The documentary style was very good — something we don’t see a lot and something that added to the verisimilitude and personal connection of the story. While some of the shots were ones that almost certainly wouldn’t exist in real life, it was still a nice change from (and a more gritty look than) the smooth, stable shots we see in most action movies. While those kind of shots are carefully crafted to be exciting, these feel more exciting because they’re filmed mostly the way someone would film it if they were actually there, which they were supposed to be. (And things like “We’ll cut that, right? The bit where it sprays me, that’s cut, right?” are again both funny and realistic.) Points for this.

Summary: In the current era of movies, District 9 feels very original, and a number of reviewers hailed it as such. However, many more original movies are made every month (anyone heard of the Sundance Film Festival?) and while I myself do not generally watch them, it just means that the bar’s set too low for movies. The plotholes and open questions make me feel that this would be more suited for short-film status (or even short-story, as I said before), where such things are more permissible (where by “permissible” I mean “expected by viewers and thus not causing a sense of disfulfillment”). Credit does go to Peter Jackson and co. for pushing this through to mainstream movies, with a nice subtle advertising campaign and a trailer that didn’t give the whole movie away. As my brother put it:

I’d imagine if this movie were made by others, the trailer would’ve taken more of a horror movie angle, having the beginning with Wikus evicting, having him passing out, and then big text saying SOMETHING IS HAPPENING TO WIKUS van de MERWE (they would’ve given him a more american name though), and then NOW, HE HAS JUST 24 HOURS TO HELP THE VERY PEOPLE HE HAS OPPRESSED, OR BE FOREVER CONDEMNED TO LIFE AS ONE OF THEM, and they would’ve had the ending shots where his eye has changed and then of the prawn that looks like him and all that stuff. It would’ve sucked. They did a great job.

So my final verdict is “why’d you screw it up”. All the setup and infrastructure was great, and they used it to tell a story that’s been told too many times before. My brother’s review points out a lot of small things they did well, and he’s right. But it just didn’t save it for me.

If you enjoy alien action movies, this is a better one than most (AFAIK, since I suppose I don’t). If you enjoy interesting sci-fi / xenophobia concepts, it might be worth watching just to be able to talk about the concepts. But all in all, it was not entertaining and the overall plot did not grab me, and so I have to leave it there.