Even within the notoriously cheese-ridden genre of science fiction, few films can rival the alien visitation picture in terms of how much suspicion they arouse. Rare is the film that deals intelligently, meaningfully, and creatively with man’s first contact with extra-terrestrial life, and nearly every film that tackles the subject winds up as either an overblown summer blockbuster or an embarrassing B-movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with blockbusters and B-movies per se – the former can be as good as any other kind of genre film if the script is smart, and the latter tend to have a charm that often overshadows their obvious technical flaws. In this regard, Neill Blomkamp’s alien adventure District 9 is one of the most unusual entries in the first contact sub-genre in quite some time: it manages to seamlessly combine the negative attributes of both, retain few of the redeeming qualities of either, and so thoroughly convince critics and audiences that it’s a breath of fresh air that it makes back its entire budget and more during its opening week.
As with any film of its kind, commenting on District 9 necessitates a fairly detailed description of its setting and backstory – “for in science fiction,” as Isaac Asimov put it, “more than any other branch of literature, background’s the thing.” In 1982, a massive spaceship with over a million starving aliens on board arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were brought down to the ground, cared for, and partially integrated into human society, but, after a series of crime waves and riots and so forth, all the aliens – called “prawns” in the film, a racial slur mocking their arthropod-like appearance – were corralled into the titular slum. By the time the “present day” narrative comes along (set only a year or two in the future), race relations, so to speak, have become so tense and virulent, and the alien population so large and unruly, that all the aliens are being forcefully relocated to yet another area, District 10, a concentration camp far outside the city.
Districts 9 and 10, of course, are references to South Africa’s real life District 6 (in Cape Town), where thousands of South African blacks were forced from their homes and relocated under the apartheid regime. This racial allegory isn’t exactly subtle, but, during the film’s first twenty minutes or so, it seems quite brilliant. Formatted as a documentary about Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a barely competent bureaucrat who is charged with leading the eviction campaign in District 9, the early scenes introducing the alien slum are jarring and pungent with black humor. The Afrikaners treat the “prawns” with a disturbing combination of fear, disgust, and patronization, finding their difficulties understanding legal paperwork equally amusing as the popcorn-like sound their offspring make when burned alive in their egg sacs by flamethrower tanks. It’s clear to the viewer right from the outset that the aliens are intelligent, emotional beings, and their presentation as hideous, bipedal insects comes across as sick and appropriate, as if Blomkamp is saying “this is what a community of oppressed and impoverished black people looks like to a white supremacist.”
I use cautious phrases like “comes across” and “seems” to describe the film’s satirical elements because, after the main points of conflict are set in motion, it quickly becomes apparent that the emperor is naked. Later plot developments and pathetic potty humor betray the film’s true colors, and whatever points Blomkamp earns for taking apartheid supporters to task are negated by his treatment of the film’s Nigerian characters, who are presented without any sense of irony as gun-running pimps and would-be cannibals. Among the film’s antagonists is a wheelchair-bound warlord of sorts – a landlocked pirate captain, more or less – who runs the underworld in District 9, buying weapons from the aliens in exchange for cat food (the aliens, it seems, become easily addicted to canned cat food) and secretly devouring the flesh of aliens he murders in hopes that he will become an alien himself and, therefore, be able to wield their DNA-sensitive technology. When Wikus grows an alien arm after exposure to alien fuel liquid (which inexplicably triggers a werewolf-like genetic transformation), the Nigerians hunt him down so their boss can feast on his flesh.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the Nigerians who want to chop Wikus up and use his body to operate weaponry, and it’s just as unfortunate for the audience as it is for Wikus. The company Wikus works for, Multinational United (MNU, a rather generic name for a weapons manufacturer), also wants the poor fellow’s unique genetic material so they can bio-engineer soldiers capable of using alien technology. Without delving into the specifics, Wikus teams up with an alien named Christopher Johnson (who is trying to restart the long-broken spaceship and claims to be able to fix Wikus’s DNA problem) and takes on MNU, the Nigerians, and everyone else with guns blazing. Thus, what starts out as a socially conscious satire of South African race relations degenerates into a standard, thick-headed action movie, complete with ludicrous explosions and extended vehicle chases. Even Wikus, who enters the story as a clueless, fascist buffoon, emerges as a typical reluctant badass action hero, able to suspend his own morality and lack of military training when a killing spree is in order.
It doesn’t help matters much that Blomkamp abandons his documentary format less than halfway through to make room for the conventional bullet-spraying, and it helps even less that he shifts emphasis from the atmosphere onto the plot. A science fiction fan can easily overlook a Swiss cheese plot structure when the world it takes place in is immersive enough, but District 9 places its ridiculous story front and center, with the underused and admittedly impressive atmosphere waving at us from off in the distance like a crying fiancée on a departing passenger ship.
Why, exactly, does MNU, a private corporation, have total military and police jurisdiction over District 9? Why do they conduct secret experiments on abducted aliens when they could simply ask the aliens how their technology works? Conversely, why don’t the aliens give the humans access to their technology so they’ll be allowed to go home? Why don’t the aliens simply use their weapons to overthrow the humans – or, at the very least, kill the Nigerians and take all their cat food? Why doesn’t MNU arrest and deport the Nigerian slumlord? Why do the humans even want the alien weaponry in the first place, when, judging by what is seen in the film, it is only marginally more effective than ordinary firearms? Since both humans and aliens can understand the other’s languages, why hasn’t anyone bothered to investigate how or why the aliens are on earth in the first place? Why hasn’t Johannesburg been flooded with scientists trying to study the aliens? Why hasn’t an alien disease wiped out humanity, or vice versa?
Even though it’s a loose adaptation of his short film Alive in Joburg, District 9 is equally indebted Blomkamp’s most popular work: Landfall, a short film in three parts based on the Halo video game series. Blomkamp was, in fact, originally slated to direct a feature length Halo film, and District 9 came about when that project fell through. If the bland characters, uninspired prop design, and disregard for human life are any indication, Blomkamp was still trying to get Halo out of his system when he wrote and directed this. It’s a rather fitting kinship, really, considering that, like Halo, nearly everything in District 9 – good or bad – is shamelessly ripped off from other works of science fiction and fantasy (to name a few obvious examples, the insect transformation from Cronenberg’s The Fly, the aliens-as-ethnics premise from Alien Nation, and the mechanical suit from Aliens).
District 9 has been praised up and down for its ability to hide its independent, relatively low-budget status so well, but budget constraints and studio approval have never been the real obstacles in the way of good science fiction cinema. Even with 75 million dollars and an international release from 20th Century Fox, Roland Emmerich still couldn’t turn Independence Day into something watchable, yet Roger Corman managed to overcome shoestring budgets and insanely short shooting schedules to produce and direct two minor classics in a single year, 1957’s Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth (which originally played together on a double bill). Hollywood-quality special effects and extended action sequences are indeed impressive for an independent film, but they mean little when they amount to nothing more than what they do in a run-of-the-mill studio release.
It all comes down to a lack of talent – or, to be a bit nicer, a lack of developed talent. Blomkamp’s background is in 3D animation, and that is, not surprisingly, where District 9 excels, but his feature length debut as director and screenwriter can only charitably be described as amateur. Hopefully, the massive success of District 9 will encourage him to challenge himself artistically, but after 112 minutes of hamfisted action and hypocritical racism (not to mention endless recycling of the same bag of tricks he used in his short films), I remain pessimistic. Independent cinema is filled with blossoming auteurs, so it doesn’t seem too unlikely that it probably has a handful of blossoming hacks, as well.