Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: District 9

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

Loathe as I am to find myself in the same camp as Armond White, I have to agree with him that District 9 is one overrated piece of crap. Yes, you may be wondering how I can slap this movie down so hard after I praised Terminator Salvation so vociferously earlier this year. Consider this, however. McG doesn't try to fool anyone into believing his Terminator sequel is anything but a blustering sci-fi action piece created simply to entertain. Taking a movie on its own terms is how I decide what's good and what's not. In this case, District 9 plays that deceiving bait-and-switch where it looks like we might be getting an intelligent science fiction allegory concerning apartheid by a promising young South African director. Instead, what starts out as an intriguing exploration into race, degenerates into an extremely conventional action movie. Shot in a faux-documentary style meant to trick you, the viewer, into thinking the film is going to attempt a measure of credibility, District 9 begins by following Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a paper-pusher promoted by the weapons company he works for to handle a dangerous eviction of illegal aliens confined in the titular slum inside Johannesburg, South Africa. Only these are not just your traditional cross-the-border-illegally kind of aliens. They're the come-from-outer-space kind of aliens. Van de Merwe's company, MNU, secretly hopes to confiscate the alien weapons and reverse-engineer them to make them work in human hands, something that has eluded them thus far. MNU gets lucky, at the expense of Van de Merwe, when the dumb bureaucrat gets sprayed with an unknown alien liquid he finds in one of the ramshackle huts the aliens reside in. The liquid initiates a metamorphosis in which the man starts slowly turning into one of the disturbing bug-like beings. The upside is the newly hybridized Van de Merwe is now the only non-alien on Earth that can operate said weapons. How long do you think it is before MNU wants to reverse-engineer him? Soon we have MNU mercenaries hunting down the poor guy, who has to hide in the very slum he was evicting aliens from, avoiding crazy Nigerian voodoo gangs (at their most racially stereotypical) that think they can gain the alien "secret power" by eating alien organs, and... well you get my drift. One big action thriller mess put together out of leftover science-fiction/horror/fantasy parts like a giant Frankenstein monster. And why does the second and third act feel like a sausage stuffed with movie byproducts? The clue lies in how the obviously talented director, Neill Blomkamp, got the opportunity to make this film. According to the L.A. Times, the film came about after producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) failed to save his Halo project from falling apart, a film Blomkamp was slated to direct. He felt so bad for Blomkamp that he decided to expand the novice director's short film Alive in Joburg into a feature-length movie, this movie, as a consolation. Much of what one glimpses in this short is the foundation for the best parts of the film, the earlier sequences that delineate an interesting parable about racism familiar to many who lived during apartheid, South Africa's abolished policy of segregation of its nonwhite people. But one cannot watch the rest without being drawn into playing a game I like to call, What Sci-Fi (or related genre) Story Are They Stealing From Now? Here are some examples: giant spaceship hovering over city...V (1983); segregation of aliens parallel to real-life aliens... Alien Nation (1988); machete-wielding voodoo gangs threatening the hero... The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); bug-like aliens as the underdog in a war with humans... Starship Troopers (1997) (an allegory done first and better by that shining beacon of restraint, the lunatic Paul Verhoeven); protagonist on the run from the military... The Incredible Hulk; human becoming a bug... take your pick, Kafka's Metamorphosis or Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Are science-fiction fanboys so starved for quality movies that they must rally behind this shit to hold up as an example of the profundity of the genre?


maj said...

I guess you liked Salvation and probably Transformers too aswell?

Maybe you should read this....

Tony Dayoub said...

I guess you haven't seen District 9 from the fact that you need to refer to another review in order to defend it. No, you guessed incorrectly on Transformers 2.

But I did read the review you linked to, and although the writer "kind of" defends the film, ultimately she concludes she can't recommend this film either. In delineating the defects of the film, she wonders whether the film is stupid or just stupidified (meaning that it's deliberately dumbed down).

Honestly, I couldn't care less which it is. All I know is that I felt angry and cheated because of the "bait-and-switch I described above. With Terminator Salvation I got something that, in fact, was a lot better than I originally expected.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony, I'm with you on the bait-and-switch. Though all the sci-fi redundancies didn't bother me -- I'm used to those -- the lack of conviction in regard to the potentially interesting premise sure did. (I need to read Armond's piece. Ugh.)

Abby said...

I liked this movie, I thought Neill Blomkamp did a great job with it.

Having said that, I do understand this film is not without it's flaws. Some critics are making it out to be some hugely epic masterpiece and it's not.

An epic masterpiece, no. A great film, yes.

Tony Dayoub said...

Good point about the redundancies, Jason. But for some reason, in this movie, it just kept making me angrier and angrier. It makes me even angrier after I read the above referenced LA Times interview with Jackson who promotes the film thusly:

...I’m also aware that audiences are getting fed up with the lack of original ideas and original stories. And if you look back to the great days of "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" and those sorts of movies, they weren’t based on TV shows, they weren’t based on comics. They were inspired by them and they had DNA in them which came from years of Flash Gordon and various things in the past but nonetheless they were original. And yet we seem to be incapable as a general industry, which includes not just the studios but the filmmakers and writers and directors, we seem to be incapable of doing that now for some reason. It’s a little bit depressing.

The sheer hypocrisy is infuriating.

Joel Bocko said...

Wow, I can't believe it's JACKSON of all people who said that...I mean, he's right but he's part of the problem! (And in addition to a penchant for remakes and adaptations, I'd point out he suffers from a lack of a certain kind of craftsmanship and discipline the early Spielbergs evoked).

A friend of mine, who ended up loving the movie, described its plot to me and I have to say I was somewhat incredulous. My problems actually begin with the premise, not just the film's deviations from it (which I wouldn't know about, having not yet seen it). Why represent the victims of apartheid as outsiders, when the whole irony of apartheid was that it subjected the MAJORITY (the NATIVE majority, no less!) to rule by the few and the foreign. And why actually set the allegory in South Africa - wouldn't it work better if the setting was indeterminate?

I have a feeling Armond White's arguments run along the same lines - I used to love reading him until his entirely predictable contrariness became as tiresome as the mindset he was reacting against.

Anyway, I'm with you on the bait-and-switch. I felt Pan's Labyrinth did the same, albeit on a higher level: I went to excited to see a film which combined mythology with the Spanish Civil War, but while the mythical creatures were fantastic, the historical portrait was cartoonish and hence the tension between "reality" and fantasy was slack.

I think film style has become too synthetic and screenwriting too facile to grapple with the implications ambitious mainstream filmmakers like to raise.

Chris said...

I don't have nearly the same sense of ire you do regarding DISTRICT 9, but I gotta agree - the bait and switch turned what was shaping up to be a refreshingly intelligent science fiction film into another sci-fi action piece.

That being said, I didn't like TERMINAOTR: SALVATION either, but will gladly say that both films had cooler robots that TRANSFORMERS 2!

Anonymous said...

Great point about "bait and switch," Tony. I've seen that happen in far too many films - good premise + good first act degenerates into standard action cliches.

And, as you also point out, using extraterrestrials as a metaphor for an oppressed racial minority was already done - and fairly well, too - in ALIEN NATION.

Tony Dayoub said...


In Pan's Labyrinth it didn't bother me, because the Spanish Civil War was approached more like an atypical backdrop for a fantasy movie, unlike in District 9, where the film purports itself to be an allegory by having Johannesburg as the setting.


I guess my "ire" was because I felt like this movie was transparent in its attempt to push my buttons by using science fiction touchstones from my youth. All it did was make me furious. It was a poor knockoff.

C. Jerry,

Amen on the flawed Alien Nation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tony. Your review made me feel a lot better about giving this a shoddy rating on Netflix.

That said, my problem with the movie (which is much more superficial than most of these arguments) is that I just DID NOT CARE about any of the characters. Everyone irked me and I'm not the most empathetic sort towards CGI characters that are supposed to wrench my heart. Personally, it seems rolling of the eyes is a more common reaction.

Joel Bocko said...

The more I think about it, the more the whole aliens-as-apartheid theme bugs me. The ONLY way I can see it working is if it's presented, like Starship Troopers (or part of Starship Troopers, anyway), as a slyly subversive take on fascism from within the fascists' mindset. In other words, if what we're supposed to be seeing is a racist Afrikaner's paranoia filtered through sci-fi.

That's not the sense I get from the hype (maybe I'm wrong, and someone who's seen the movie can enlighten me). It's nice that the film sympathizes with the victims of segregation and oppression, but by casting them as outsiders it is perpetuating the myth of the black African as "other" - when in fact it is was the Europeans who were the natural "others" in South Africa.

This is not to say the "other" is always morally superior or anything, but it's a crucial fact in understanding apartheid that, it bears repeating, it was the NATIVE population, the MAJORITY of the country (do the aliens outnumber the humans in this film?), which was held down by a minority from elsewhere. When the film repurposes the scenario, it obscures an extremely important element of apartheid.

Tony Dayoub said...

MovieMan, you make an extremely important point that, though I was aware of, I failed to discuss in my review. Young people today, who may make the surface connection between the film and it's real life parallel, are not being served well by the film's irresponsible exclusion of this salient fact you bring up.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, it's worth pointing out that I don't have a problem with movies being politically incorrect, so to speak, I just can't stand hypocrisy. Many great films are morally and/or ideologically dubious, but none that fudge or hedge on what they're about (which has aesthetic implications as well as ethical ones). So my doubts about District 9 (and they remain just doubts at this point, since I haven't seen the movie) have twofold implications. One, as you point out, is the film's moral duty - people thinking they will be getting history served through sci-fi are ill-served and those looking for a penetrating if indirect reflection of apartheid will be duped.

But, ultimately I am more interested in the aesthetic implications of this stance. A movie's ill-conceived politics or irresponsible omissions and transformations have no real bearing on a film's worth, I think, except indirectly. Which is to say that the film's interpretation of apartheid may reflect most poorly on the film not because it's wrong but because it's intellectually lazy and, here's the real kicker, LESS INTERESTING than it would have been to show the aliens as not yet another oppressed minority (which has been done to death) but a mass suppressed by an elite group, made to feel like an "other" when, in fact, it's imprisoned in its own homeland.

This is primarily where my doubts about District 9 arise from: it seems allegorizes history by making said history less compelling, and its treatment of the fundamental issues at stake seem sloppy and vulgar. From a distance - this is a judgement of how the film has been presented more than the film itself, obviously.

I guess that's a little overboard, especially for a film I hadn't seen, but I wanted to make it clear that I don't think a film has to automatically be either PC or faithful to the historical record; however, creative decisions have results, and sometimes they can be poor.

tsandaal said...

Gotta say, Dave, I was fired up to see the movie based on the hype. You muted that significantly, yet I went and saw it and had a really, really good time.

Muted expectations worked wonders. My thoughts:

I welcomed the departure from allegory. Somebody posted about setting it in South Africa made it unsustainable and I agree with that. Had they persisted with a heavy handed allegory I would have left the theater.

I also agree with the poster who complained about the absence of likable characters. Wikus' lightning fast transformation from cubicle fool to action hero doesn't elicit sufficient buy-in. The father/son combo is saccharine. I also agree that the constant reminders to other flicks is distracting. To add to Dave's list: Predator style mouth tentacles, Half Life/Halo style weaponry, including the gravity gun from Half Life 2, numerous BlackHawk Down helicopter/music shots. and so on.

Missed opportunities.
The worst mistake, in my opinion, was the faux-documentary structure. Had it begun with the initial search of the ship and the discovery of the population in the hold. . . That image will be recalled when Cormac McCarthy's The Road finally gets released.

The second missed opportunity was finishing the movie with Wikus fully transformed. If he stays a half-breed, the movie becomes a very, very good origin story.

Despite all this, I had a really good time. Why? It was released in August, the month of the mindless joyride. It accomplished what I love most about sci fi, the world building and the suspension of disbelief that accompanies it. I thought the weapon testing scene was excellent. Many of the story elements were cool. The patient alien escape plan, for example.

And the previews. Sorority Row (can't wait), Legion (finally the anti-sixth sense geriatric scary figure), and The Fourth Kind.

Sam Juliano said...

I respect your position here Tony, but I found DISTRICT 9 one of the most powerful films of the years, a persuasive and wrenching examination of man's inhumanity to man. The filmmaking was ever-imaginative and engaging. Didn't have the issues with the documentary style that supetude did.

Now INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is the one I have serious issues with! LOL! My colleague Movie Man as always makes some speculative points, but they simply don't pan out. This is heart-felt stuff here, and many set pieces resonate, and the premise is full-bodied. There is a reason why the film received spectular reviews in th eprofessional ranks, and to dismiss such an important and affecting film is frustrating.

Tony, excellent piece and discussion here.

Tony Dayoub said...

Interesting that you bring up Inglorious Basterds, Sam. I caught it yesterday and wanted to ruminate a bit on it before posting a review. It really is the perfect film to review in counterpoint with District 9, since it also plays fast and loose with historical facts.

Here's the main difference, though. From the moment Tarantino's film begins, it announces it is an entirely fictitious, over-the-top tale... like an opera, a performance that uses a historical event as a point of departure into something overtly fantastic with heightened emotional expressions. It announces this with the simple words, "Once upon a time..." and consistently reminds the viewer it is phony through its highly stylized dialogue, theatrical staging, and musical cues quoted from other distinctly flavored movies.

"District 9" does the inverse, pretending it is a documentary, lulling you into a scene of hyperreality vs. hyperfiction. And then it breaks its own rules by getting significant parts of the historical basis wrong. An analogy can be made to the writer who publishes the first draft of his article without fact-checking, running it through spellcheck, etc. Good intentions, but lazy execution. Tarantino, at least, is deliberately going for an effect. Whether you like or dislike the methodology he uses to get to that effect, or the content of wht he is trying to say is a matter of personal taste. But you can't say there isn't a deliberate motive behind it.

District 9's motive seems to be one of expediency and box office greed. That is why I spotlighted the decision to assign Blomkamp this movie as a consolation for the other one that fell through. It speaks to the lack of integrity inherent in the film's genesis.

That said, I'm glad you and supetube enjoyed it. I may have also, had I gone into the theater with the same diminished expectations supetube seemed to have. It definitely had some promising elements in its choice of setting, style, and historical basis that just never seemed to payoff for me.

Sean Weatherby said...

District 9 was genuinely original and all around high quality as far as cinematography goes; that new no name lead actor did a great job

Adam Zanzie said...

I enjoyed District 9, but I agree with Tony that the ending is fairly conventional and even anticlimatic. Blomkamp could have made the next Minority Report, but when it came time for a stunning finish he took the easy way out.

Ms. Darlene Vile said...

District 9 is an overrated mess of a film. I've tried to rationalize the movie's huge highly-devoted fanbase, and it seems the movie's considerable social commentary (very heavy-handed, it was), it's gritty documentary style, and the fairly notable scifi/horror effects all combine to create this kind of anti-criticism force field around it. As someone pointed out, this movie had more staunch defenders before it was released than could possibly had seen the movie.
By the way, does anyone else think the aliens were originally supposed to speak english? The humans speak english to the aliens, while they speak their native tongue with subtitles. The humans have no trouble at all understanding their language, and vice-versa. To me, it seems like the aliens were supposed to speak english, but was changed and dubbed at the last minute--perhaps cause it sounded too silly or non-threatening. I don't know, but it didn't work.