District 9 Disappoints Despite Inspired Genre Mash-Up
- Friday, August 14, 2009
DVD Release Date: December 22, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: August 14, 2009
Rating: R (for pervasive strong language and bloody violence)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, Elizabeth Mkandawie, John Summer, William Allen Young
Though unrelated, it's hard not to see the similarities between the recent Cloverfield and the new District 9.
Consider: Both put a gritty low-budget spin on the usually high-tech, sci-fi aesthetic. Both are presented by high-profile producers (J.J. Abrams then; Peter Jackson now). Both entered theaters with slow-build marketing campaigns short on details and fueled by mystery. And both, unfortunately, disappoint. Granted, District 9 is better in many ways, but in the end it still fails to live up to its promise.
In an inspired genre mash-up of sci-fi, horror and documentary styles, District 9 looks to tackle relevant themes related to the War on Terror (and the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, specifically) through a parabolic lens. In an opening montage of interviews and news clips, we're given the basic expository details. Thirty years prior to the unspecified future "present" of the film, an alien ship suddenly appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, hovering silently. Humans invaded the ship to discover a colony of survivors from an alien planet (the creatures look like overgrown cockroaches without wings).
They were allowed to Earth, but soon it became clear that the aliens' natural tendencies were too violent and barbaric for (and toward) humanity. The solution: aliens were relegated to a makeshift ghetto in Johannesburg called District 9. There they lived in shacks and squalor. Now three decades later, the situation is only worse and humanity has finally determined that the aliens must be evicted.
Of course something more Orwellian is at play here, too. Multi-National United (MNU)—the organization in charge of policing District 9—has been secretly trying to activate the aliens' bio-weaponry. The challenge: a weapons operator must have alien DNA. MNU's attempts (involving the killing and harvesting of aliens) have been fruitless. But when a black fluid developed by the aliens falls into the wrong human hands, a gross mutation slowly occurs; the evil MNU warmongers see an opportunity, an innocent official is framed, a manhunt ensues, and chaos erupts in rather bloody, gory fashion.
Despite worthy effort and ambition, District 9 falls prey to the same problems of many (even most) sci-fi, dystopian fables: it creates a futuristic metaphor to examine contemporary issues but then gravely over-simplifies those issues. More specifically problematic to this narrative, its own reality is too muddled. Yes, we're told "what" happened to bring this situation to the brink, but we never learn "why" and barely know "how" it all devolved.
Too much of the thirty-year history is washed over, thus denying any greater moral dimension or social complexity to what has happened. It's hard to judge the human decisions when all we're shown is how violent the aliens are. Yes, District 9 may seem inhumane but it also makes sense within the limited context presented, and the film never really examines or wrestles with this conflict. On the contrary, the clear implication and tone is that the aliens are being unjustly oppressed. The problem is that the film never makes the case for them; it merely resorts to a clichéd case against humanity.
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