Gripping, disgusting, fantastic, corny, sentimental, and unsound, District 9 is a smorgasbord of sensory experiences, designed to keep you engaged, enthralled, and mildly sea sick.
Wikus is an employee of Multi-National United (MNU), a private corporation charged with “managing” earth’s alien population. Management, we find out early on, entails the eviction of the 1.2 million aliens–derogatively called “prawns”–from their earthly dwelling. It’s the newly promoted Wikus who must cart the shrimp out of District 9 down the road to the much nicer concentration camp, aptly named District 10 (i.e., the Sequel-Nod).
The aliens came to earth 28 years ago and decided ominously to hover over, of all places, Johannesburg (That the director didn’t switch the location to New York suggests both the source material and the philosophical intentions of the film aren’t the usual summer blockbuster fare). After weeks of the alien ship sitting statically, the South African government cut a hole in the hull to find out what the hell was going on. What they found was a gaggle of malnourished, relatively docile alien beings very much resembling 8-foot shrimp (hence the nickname) with legs.
The shrimp were quarantined, and official legislation passed restricting both their movement and their rights. We find out quickly that the aliens are a bit faster and stronger than humans, but of roughly the same mental capacity. Unlike most science fiction films featuring alien invaders, therefore, the threat of the “other” is mild. The shrimp speak in garbled clicks, they form gangs, they like to gorge themselves on black-market cat food sold to them by the Nigerians, and they have weapons that respond only to alien touch (which the South African government want to use). But rather than wanting to destroy earth, the shrimp just want to leave.
Now, in the true spirit of High Horse, I’d like to explore some critical opinions espoused over the last few weeks. I like Pete Travers of The Rolling Stone who said, “District 9, with a chump-change budget of $30 million, soars on the imagination of its creators,” which is entirely true. The visuals are stunning, the alien weapons original, and the CG as well-integrated as in the much more expensive War of the Worlds from 2005. But the conflict and, to some degree, the loose political themes created by the writers and director are what drive the film. An “intimate epic” it is not. Trying to achieve too many things may account for most of the flaws. A sort of tongue-in-cheek irony combined with stomach turning violence suggests to me the shortcomings of District 9 aren’t analogous to Evil Dead accidentally taking itself too seriously, but rather, at times, the producers refusing to make difficult editing decisions.
I whole-heartedly agree with Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail who says, “[District 9] avoids well-traveled roads to blaze a trail both different and compelling. But then the trail disappears, leaving us with a yes-and-no movie. Yes, the premise is delightful; no, the delight doesn’t last.” In the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, District 9 attempts to be the scholar’s sci-fi flick. There are semi-profound comments on racial-profiling and apartheid, and the wall surrounding District 9 is nothing short of West Bankian. Director Neill Blomkamp does succeed in not beating his audience to death with morality lessons. But his extravagant use of violence very nearly buries the somewhat innovative plot.
I recommend District 9 to anyone with a decent constitution and an interest in science fiction. If you’re able to keep your expectations at bay and your lunch down, it’s a well-spent two hours. Again, it’s not a deep exploration of profound political themes, but sometimes a shallower exploration is more effective. Fans of The Fly and Alien will find themselves delighted and entertained. Fans of The Devil Came on Horseback and Hotel Rwanda might enjoy it, too, provided they’re also fans of The Fly and Alien.
Special Marketing Note: District 9 created a very clever viral marketing campaign and began using late in its campaign a new technology called “augmented reality” that promises to tickle the fancies of tech nerds everywhere.