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Monday, August 24, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review District 9

Both: This is an interesting film that's worthy of your attention. It's not as bad as we feared, but it's not as good as its box office or buzz might lead you to believe.

Lawrence Person: District 9 is a moderately smart science fiction film married to a pretty stupid action film; most of the smart stuff is embedded in the milieu and setup; most of the stupid stuff is in the plot. It's mostly smart at the beginning, stupid in the middle, and mostly smart again at the end. Unfortunately, there's no way to disentangle the smart parts from the stupid parts; it's all of a piece with the story writer/director Neill Blomkamp wanted to tell.

Howard Waldrop: Something new — telling an alien invasion story in retrospect, and at the personal level. Yeah, the main guy's in charge early on, but then things go very, very badly...

Back story: The aliens ("prawns") came to Earth 20 years ago in a now inoperable Big Dumb Object (that's been hanging over Johannesburg all that time).

LP: The setup displays a lot of the skiffy novelty District 9 has working for it. Having the ship show up over Johannesburg instead of New York or Washington DC opens up a lot of heretofore unexplored storytelling possibilities. Moreover, the aliens first shown seem more like weak, disoriented and starving refugees than all-powerful galactic overlords. They seem, if anything, less intelligent than us (insert your own joke here), all but incapable of communicating with humans, and prone to mindless violence and arson. Some of the talking heads interviewed (lots of infodump here, but well-used and appropriate) suggest that the majority of prawns are in fact drones or members of a working caste, with the ruling or technocratic caste nowhere to be found.

HW: They were put into a ghetto township (District 9) which has of course turned into an alien shantytown. (There's also a camp run by a Nigerian warlord, who, among other things, sells the aliens catfood at exorbitant prices.) The aliens are to be relocated approximately 60 km out of town.

LP: The South African alien township setup is where much of the film's intellectual interest for astute SF viewers resides. Everything there is dirty, run-down and chaotic. The eviction process, in which illiterate aliens who may or may not understand English, have to sign their assent to the eviction notices, is both completely absurd and entirely believable as the result of bureaucratic ass-covering. The way things go pear-shaped is totally convincing because the situation was already totally screwed up in place where no one really seems to be in charge, less Alien Nation than Black Hawk Down. And the aliens are among the most alien we've seen, at least in an earth-based context. They're both pitiable and menacing, sometimes at the same time.

Likewise, the Nigerian warlord wanting to ingest alien flesh so he can use their technology is entirely too believable, coming from a continent where albinos are butchered to make magic potions and "sorcerers" are regularly arrested or lynched for using magic to shrink men's penises.

HW: Our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who works for the multinational corporation (MNU) running the show, is put in charge of the move to the new tent-city. Echoes of Apartheid are everywhere.

LP: One fear I had coming in was that the movie would hit the Apartheid theme too hard, but they didn't; it remains a subtext rather than an overtext.

HW: The aliens have weapons that humans can't use (it's tied to alien DNA). The early portions of the movie are done with cinema-vérité interviews with alien experts and people who knew and worked with Van De Merwe. Through the first day of the eviction process, we get to know the world of the film, the alien set-up, and so on. Things begin to go badly when the eviction process uncovers alien technology labs and weaponry.

LP: The alien technology bit seems singularly unconvincing in light of the setup we're given. Except for whoever came down in an apparent command module that fell off the ship, all the aliens were ferried down via helicopter. And the vast majority of the prawns we see seem incapable of planning more than five minutes into the future, much less assembling high technology out of human refuse. So whence came all these inexplicable high-tech weapons that seem as ubiquitous in District 9 as copies of Frampton Comes Alive were in second-hand record shops?

I can believe aliens who are dumb as toast. I can believe aliens smart enough to build a mech suit out of scrap. What I can't believe is that the smart aliens would let the dumb ones sell the mech suit to the Nigerian warlord for cat food.

But there are still many effective scenes. In one, Van De Merwe excitedly shows the cameras how the alien use some sort of tube system to feed deliquescing cow to alien eggs, then has the shanty torched, eggs and all.

HW: The protagonist gets a dose of icky stuff from the McGuffin and begins, like Jeff Goldblum in the remake of The Fly, or the guy in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, to mutate.

LP: Evidently the McGuffin canister contains Universal Plot Solvent. I like works where the McGuffin is more than just a McGuffin, i.e. something with unique and intrinsic properties of its own that changes the direction of the plot rather than just something people chase around. But the Magic Icky Fluid here has such a huge and different roles in the plot (It turns people into aliens! It powers spaceships! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!), that it's really where the Deep Stupidity begins. So it just happened to take our alien technocrat 20 years to distill this one canister, and he just happens to finish the day the eviction notices are delivered, and just happens to have his super-secret chemistry lab upon which the entire fate of his people depends up in a squalid shanty rather than hidden down in the super secret alien command module? That's an awful lot of Stupid to pack into a single plot contrivance...

Also, a warning: If you have a low gag threshold for icky fluids, you might want to avoid District 9. There are more on display here than anything this side of a David Cronenberg film.

HW: So far, except for the personal focus, pretty standard. Then we begin to follow the protagonist, like the guy in The Informer, as the world turns against him. (His father-in-law works for the multinational also.) As he runs and is hunted, we see all the tricks MNU uses to try and capture him. The story's been put out that he's highly contagious; that he's been porking aliens, etc. All he wants to do is get home to his wife.

LP: It was a nice touch having tabloid newspapers used as a tool of political oppression. It's a good thing that could never happen here.

The acting here is generally at least passable, and frequently better. Sharlto Copley is onscreen for the majority of the film, and he's not great (there are a lot of actors who could have done better with this role), but he's acceptable. The biggest flaws of the character comes from the script itself, which asks him to morph from a Woody Allen working in the DMV to Rambo in a mechsuit.

And there's one needlessly stupid cut where Van De Merwe is running just a few steps ahead of some guys chasing him with dogs, and then in the next scene he's escaped.

HW: We see more and more of the aliens in these scenes, especially one called — I kid you not — Christopher, and his young son. Christopher promises that if he gets back the McGuffin, he can cure Van De Merwe. Of course, Van De Merwe is mutating: there are some horrendous scenes of MNU testing him (because he can now use the prawn weapons) while they have him in captivity.

LP: MNU is every movieland Evil Multinational Corporation rolled into one. They might as well have Evil at Work motivational posters in their cubicles. The MNU doctor goes from zero to "hey, let's slice him up" in under 60 seconds, with absolutely no justification offered as to why he was "in perfect balance" or how they could actually commercialize the technology, much less hire recruits for it. ("So you want to turn my hands into alien claws so I can fire a really cool weapon? How about I join a company that doesn't want to induct me into the Brigade of Dr. Moreau?") Not to mention the budgetary justification for the whole secret genetics lab. ("So just what is it we're getting for our $20 million a year?" "Oh, we kill aliens in agonizing, horrible and disgusting ways." "And this is good for our bottom line how?") It makes Ernst Stavro Blofeld's operations look like models of prudent capital allocation...

HW: Christopher and his son are trying to re-power the command module with the McGuffin to get back to the Big Dumb Object. Meanwhile, Van De Merwe uses the alien technology to settle some MNU hash right and left. The final chase is protracted, but it works.

LP: The command module is another point of sloppiness. It's initially shown falling off as the ship hovered over Johannesburg. So how does it get buried all the way out in District 9?

On the bright side, lots of moments in the final 30 minutes play like you know exactly where things are going, but then take several unexpected and gratifying twists. And when the BDO finally does come to window-shattering, basso profundo life, the film generates a true frisson of awe.

HW: The special effects are not the usual ones. Each alien weapon has a different visual signature and a different effect on humans and objects. Some make humans disappear with a minimum of residue; others vaporize them and throw gooey stuff everywhere. That shows more imagination than most movies.

LP: Some of the alien technology was cool, others looked like those from any number first person shooter video games of recent vintage. But that's among the least of the film's problems.

HW: Don't go expecting another Independence Day — you won't get it, and this film communicates with you on a more emotional level than anything in that film ever did.

It's not a great film, but is pretty intelligent, (given that everyone works for the equivalent of Yoyodyne). The aliens show various levels of intelligence — just like the humans. And you're actually rooting for them at the end (which has an ambivalent but hopeful ending on the species level, and a devastating one on the personal).

LP: The movie is stupid in ways that big action films are frequently stupid, but it's smart in ways that films of human-alien interaction usually aren't. There's a sense of interesting and unexplained things beyond the boundaries of the movie, of aliens that are genuinely alien. That's just enough for us to give the film a marginal thumbs up. Your mileage may vary.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka

Official Website:

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Blogger Stephen said...

The humans became more alien while the aliens became more human.

Possible subtext: Aliens were once humans.

August 25, 2009 2:24 PM  
Blogger Gary Farber said...

"It's a good thing that could never happen here."

Perhaps a better example could have been linked to, given that the linked story turned out to have been perfectly accurate.

Perhaps a link to a tabloid story that hurt a politician that was actually false and actually was "used as a tool of political oppression"?

Great review, as usual.

August 29, 2009 2:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Hollo said...

Perhaps you missed the sarcasm in that comment, Gary...

September 8, 2009 12:23 AM  

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