GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: District 9 (2009)

District 9 (USA/ New Zealand/ Canada/ South Africa, 2009)
Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Louis Minnaar

IMDb Top 250: #210 (26/12/12)

In my review of (500) Days of Summer, I spoke about how film enthusiasts are always on the lookout for innovation, whether it be drastically moving the goalposts or taking something well-worn and presenting it in an interesting light. In the same week that (500) Days of Summer failed to live up to its hype as a modern-day Annie Hall, District 9 comes along and makes a much better fist of things. The result in an impressive, ideas-laden debut which displays great promise even as it falls short of greatness in and of itself.
Much attention has been given to the involvement of Peter Jackson in District 9's production history. Jackson had originally intended for director Neil Blomkamp to helm an adaptation of the Halo video game series, having been impressed by his short film Alive in Joburg. Considering Jackson's own fortunes with The Lovely Bones, it is tempting to view this film in the same vein as Super 8, i.e. a case of a great filmmaker attempting to recapture his past self, using an apprentice to make the kind of films he is no longer capable of making.
District 9 does score over Super 8, for a couple of reasons. One is that it is not as overtly self-conscious; while J. J. Abrams went out of his way to pay tribute to Spielberg, at the cost of not saying anything new, Blomkamp draws on a wider range of influences of which Jackson's early features make up a small but recognisable part. The other is that District 9 makes a more forthright and ambitious effort to tell a new story with existing components, something which Super 8 attempted but never accomplished to an entirely satisfying degree.
District 9 is primarily a film about xenophobia, exploring that theme through the language of science fiction and eventually the conventions of the action genre. Blomkamp draws clear parallels between the prawns' predicament and those of the black South Africans under the Apartheid regime. The film's protagonists are a white minority, who have the law in their favour and military might behind them, and who treat the prawns (read 'Blacks') somewhere between second-class citizens and no better than animals. The title refers to the infamous District Six in central Cape Town, which was declared a 'whites-only zone' in the 1960s and from which all inhabitants were forcibly evicted.
Having established this parallel, District 9 digs a little deeper to look at the transition from military containment to legal control of the prawns. The film has two different personalities at its heart: the timid, mild-mannered Wikus van der Merwe and the macho, aggressive Colonel Koobus Venter. Venter represents the old order, being akin to the first men to board the alien ship; he views the prawns as scum who are only safe to deal with when dead. Wikus' barbarism comes with a smile: instead of forcing the prawns to obey him at gunpoint, he manipulates them into jumping through legal hoops, giving his company and government a veneer of legitimacy and democratic credibility.
The film uses Wikus' character arc to explore the irrational nature of racism. Being a science fiction film with prominent horror and action elements, Wikus' transformation does not come about through a series of polite conversations, shot in glowing close-ups and backed by uplifting music. Instead he literally transforms after being infected by an alien fluid, and the less human DNA that he possesses, the more humane he becomes. This transformation is made all the more convincing by the performance of Sharlto Copley, who improvised every last word of his dialogue.
There is also a sadly underdeveloped idea about governments relying on private contractors and multinational corporations in law enforcement. We have suspicions that MNU's intentions may not be entirely transparent, which are confirmed when we discover that Wikus' boss has been experimenting on the aliens. There is potential within this idea, either for a revamped Frankenstein story along the lines of Day of the Dead, or a more in-depth political commentary about the changing nature of state and police power. As it is, the idea is introduced to an extent that it makes sense, but it leaves us wanting a little more to chew on.
For fans of sci-fi, horror and action movies, it won't take much effort to pick up on all the films to which District 9 owes a debt. Blomkamp didn't credit any one film as being a source of inspiration, saying instead that he considers the film to be in the same vein as the "hardcore" action films of the 1980s, such as Aliens, Predator and RoboCop. The rough-edged documentary aesthetic was in part an attempt to move away from the glossy, slick look of modern action blockbusters. The end result is an interesting mix of the two looks, with the cutting-edge CG effects integrating surprisingly well with the grungy, dingy sets.
The film incorporates a number of different genres or sub-genres into both its story and visuals. There are clear hints of Jackson's early work in the more organic effects: the alien sick and gruesome, rubbery effects in Wikus' transformation nod directly towards Bad Taste and Brain Dead. The central plot of the aliens attempting to get home is very close to E.T., particularly in the scene where Wikus is shown the machine the aliens have constructed to get them back to the mothership. For a while we expect a Close Encounters-style ending, in which the aliens manage to leave and Wikus chooses to go with them.
The action elements of the film take heavily after Alien and Aliens, from the scene of the alien eggs being burned right down to the shape of the mechanical contraption Wikus used to fight off the Nigerians. But by far the biggest influence on District 9 is the body horror of David Cronenberg. Much like The Fly, Rabid or Videodrome, the film focusses on the painful physical transformation of its main character, who undergoes the torment of gradually mutating into something a lot less human. The black sludge dripping from Wikus' nose, fingernails snapping off, teeth falling out and the ability to operate alien weapons are all used to drive home the scale and agony of this change, matching physical to mental deterioration.
Unfortunately, the prominence of body horror also sheds light on District 9's main problem. There are so many different influences colliding in this breezily-told maelstrom of a film that it never follows through entirely with any of them. All the interesting allegories raised in the early sci-fi sections are eventually swept aside in the more action-based third act. The body horror elements are enjoyably gruesome from a make-up perspective, but we don't get the same level of emotional tragedy or ambiguity that Cronenberg achieved. While he would have focussed on the blurring of boundaries between alien and human a lot more, Blomkamp prefers to give us a whizz-bang climax, and not for the first time that's rather disappointing.
This feeling of complacency is reinforced by the film's aesthetic. It begins in a documentary fashion, with Wikus being followed around by a cameraman when evicting the prawns. But soon after he has become infected, Blomkamp abandons the aesthetic and the film plays out in more conventional fashion until the closing minutes reminds us that we supposedly watching a news report the whole time. You could argue that we're interested in the story to such an extent that this doesn't matter, but it does undermine the suspension of disbelief when you stop and think about it.
If you do stop and think about the story of District 9, elements of it begin to feel decidedly less clever. Much like Chronicle, it's a case of the ideas not being developed to a great enough extent, or of promising characters being married to a clunky or clichéd environment. Calling your multi-national organisation Multi-National United is downright lazy, and there are moments in which the conversations about MNU's secret programme drift into the sillier end of spy thrillers. Like Chronicle we could chalk this down to the inexperience of a first-time director, but surely someone of Jackson's calibre would have spotted these inadequacies and dealt with them.
District 9 is an interesting and engaging debut effort which suggests that Blomkamp has a promising career ahead of him. While the film doesn't deliver on all of its ideas, and wears its references very much on its sleeve, it is an enjoyable and reasonably thought-provoking romp which will satisfy a mainstream audience. Blomkamp has more streamlined and original films in him, but this is enjoyable in the same ramshackle way as Bad Taste. Here's just hoping that his next feature won't be his equivalent of Meet the Feebles.