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.

One "Big Brother" chestnut after another is rolled out:  evil military-industrial complex, media misinformation, fear-mongering propaganda, blah blah blah.  Humans are the dupes, aliens are the victims, and it all unfolds with melodramatic hysteria.  It's madness that could be avoided if both sides would just sit down and talk, but of course their joint paranoia keeps them from coming together and understanding each other.  Like I said:  over-simplifying contemporary issues.

To his credit, director Neill Blomkamp is not heavy-handed with the metaphor; so straight-forward is he that the Terror War analogy will likely be missed by those simply looking for a sci-fi thrill ride.  The downside to this tempered thematic touch (combined with the faint moral context) is that it makes for a film with little emotional or intellectual punch. 

So in order to create tension and drama, other elements are ramped up—namely the violence.  Bodily decay, dismemberment, and actual mutation are warm-ups to bigger and bloodier gore involving alien-on-human violence, the eating of alien limbs in voodoo-like rituals, and the literal blowing-up of bodies.  Nice.

In the midst of all this mayhem, newcomer Sharlto Copley does an admirable job in the lead role of the wrongly-accused fugitive.   His earnest portrayal creates a dimension that the script does not, elevating what are nothing more than stock man-on-the-run narrative beats.  Other characters don't fare as well, unable to do more than serve the function the script requires of them. 

Even the most sympathetic alien—a scientist who could save his species if the humans don't destroy them first—is a peculiar oddity.  His intelligence and empathy is in direct contrast to the barbaric nature of his fellow aliens … although their barbaric nature is in contrast to the technological advancement of their species.  These contradictions are examples of a thrown-together story that reveals more holes as it progresses, even as it tries to involve you with rote emotional staples (like the alien scientist's child who is caught in the crossfire).

I must confess that despite those holes, I wouldn't accuse District 9 of being a lazy film.  Blomkamp clearly has a specific vision for the material, his vision is consistently achieved, and he's striving for something more than mindless sci-fi action.  He just doesn't fully succeed.  That shortcoming is likely the result of one simple fact:  this is his first feature.  Though it's lacking, Blomkamp displays a level of bravura imagination that bodes promise for films to come.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Drinking at a party, smoking.  Not pervasive. 
  • Language/Profanity:  Profanities are pervasive throughout, especially the "F" word.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None, although there are a couple of brief references to sex acts between humans and aliens.
  • Violence/Other:  Graphic violence and gore seen throughout.  Gunplay, military conflict, aliens attacking humans (and vice versa).  Dismemberment.  Bodies explode in bloody/graphic fashion.  Harvested alien bodies.  A human body slowly mutates into alien form during the course of the film.  Acts of voodoo-like witchcraft are practiced, including the eating of raw alien body parts.  Multiple instances of vomiting.  Fingernails fall off, teeth fall out.  Aliens openly urinating.  Aliens use cow carcasses in the process of creating a special liquid.

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.