So after an extensive viral market campaign, District 9 has finally arrived in cinemas. And a real treat it is too for a number of reasons. Firstly it is a superior sci-fi action movie made with intelligence and verve, and secondly it’s presenting a wholly new and original setting – something of a rarity in these days of endless sequels, reboots and cinematic adaptions of TV shows and toys.
District 9 is details an alternate Earth where in 1982, a gigantic alien ship came to rest over Johannesburg, and its stranded occupants were evacuated and now are interred in the titular District 9. The film’s story follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) an employee of the independent military contractor MNU who is tasked with dismantling the sprawling shanty town and resettling the aliens to a new segregated camp far away from the city.
District 9 is definitely one of the more remarkable blockbusters of recent times. Neil Blomkamp made a film for a relatively low budget of $30 million and made it look a great deal more, but its box office success proves that you don’t need an established and recognised property to draw the punters in. And more importantly, besides delivering a film that can hold its own against like Transformers 2 and GI Joe, District 9 also tops the mega budget offerings by telling a compelling story packed with heaps more intelligent and emotion.
Some of the more high brow critics have criticised District 9 for not delving deeper into the social commentary/satire, and claiming that because of this the film fails. The phrases “descends in action” has been used as stick to beat the film with. But as Blomkamp has stated quite clearly that he set out to make a slice of gritty sci-fi action, and with the trailers endorsing this, I don’t see why District 9 is getting some flack because it didn’t turn out to be some species of Brechtian socio-political allegory. If District 9 “misses the mark” because it doesn’t go all Ken Loach on us, then by these skewed criteria, it is also an abysmal failure as a western, a rom-com, a gross-out comedy and a scary 1960s Czechoslovakian animation.
In the case of District 9, it would seem that the afore mentioned group of critics are assuming that because the movie is set in South Africa, it must just be an allegory about apartheid and therefore see failing to present and explore its political intricacies of that situation. However I’d argue that the political overtones of District 9 are making a more general point about the treatment of refugees and detainees the world over.
I can appreciate that the setting and story of District 9 offers the basis for a fascinating piece of social commentary which some may feel could have been expanded upon. But if the film followed a more political bent would it really make its points any better? At the end of the day, it is totally beyond any film-maker to come up with solutions to problems like xenophobia and deliberate ghetto creation; all a director can really do is highlight the problems.
And Blomkamp does not flinch from showing the audience all the squalor, degradation and poverty of such enforced settlements, and also clearly shows both the prejudice and basic ignorance of ordinary citizens that allows the authorities to treat people in such a casually inhumane manner. The imagery of the alien ghetto and the human characters reactions to it speak volumes in themselves.
But also, by wrapping all of this up in an action packed story, the political points of District 9 will reach a much wider audience than a movie that focussed on endless scenes of talking heads debating the politics. Surely it better that the issues raised by District 9 are seen by millions of people rather than a handful of film buffs. And I’m quite sure that many audience members will have a different perspective on the next news report detailing the plight of refugees after watching District 9.
Also the way Blomkamp has constructed the film is also quite innovative. It begins in straight mockumentary fashion but soon broadens the scope, encompassing action not being filmed by the characters. The very first time the film deviates from the found footage, I did find it slightly jarring but as the ‘real’ scenes are shot with the same gritty aesthetic as the ‘TV’ footage, you quickly adjust to the mixing of the two story telling styles. And this hybrid mode works very much in the film’s favour, neatly side stepping the usual narrative problems and constraints of the found footage genre, such as having characters welded to a camera at all times and questions to why the hell they are still rolling instead of legging it. Additionally, viewing events from an individual and a media perspective structurally reinforces the film’s more serious themes.
Blomkamp is to be applauded for creating an action movie with this added depth, rather than be berated for not making a ‘serious’ film. Wikus is far from the average action hero; instead of being morally certain in his actions and impervious to harm, he’s flawed, vulnerable and very, very human. In fact, when we first meet his character, he is actually fairly unlikeable – an officious and rather ignorant nebbish. But as the film progresses, he does gain our sympathies and Blomkamp again avoids the easy road and doesn’t have a Road to Damascus style u-turn in his attitudes. His ignorance and prejudices are something he struggles with through the film, almost right to the end. District 9 is very much his story and Copley delivers a brilliant performance that not only carries the film but gives it heart and humanity.
All in all District 9 is a highly accomplished debut feature. Its South African setting is a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood locations and it creates a convincing and enthralling new other world, which in the traditions of all the best sci-fi holds up a mirror to our own times. It tells a new story intelligently and in a novel new ways; it’s beautifully paced and builds to an exciting climax with enough mayhem and exploding bodies to satisfy the most ardent action fan. But most telling, the depiction of the squalid ghetto and the emotional drama linger in the mind as much as the FX driven scenes of carnage.
JIM MOON, 6th September 2009