Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

District 9

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I had been planning to review the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form category of the Hugos for Strange Horizons. That was before I saw Avatar and realised I had absolutely nothing to say about this idiotic, worthless film. So, instead, I thought I would post some thoughts about the films on the shortlist here.

Along with Avatar, District 9 was one of the two films I hadn’t seen before starting the process and it was a shock to my pre-conceptions. From what I had read, I had expected Neill Blomkamp’s film to be a promising but flawed debut; I hadn’t expected a work of such pervasive cinematic incompetence. Perhaps this is understandable in a first time director expanding his own short film, Alive In Joburg (2005), but then where was Peter Jackson who, as producer, received higher billing than Blomkamp? It starts with a great science fiction premise: a giant spaceship appears over the skies of Johannesburg but instead of a glorious moment of first contact there is only silence; when humanity forces its way into the ship, the alien inhabitants are disorganised and dying. The problem is not only the story Blomkamp uses this to tell and the way he tells this story.

The aliens arrived in 1982 and, by the time the film starts, twenty years later, there are over a million of them inhabiting the titular slum district on the edge of the city under the aspices of MNU, a private security contractor. As they grow the slum grows too big to contain, tensions between the “prawns” and the humans rise. This backstory is deftly sketched out in the form of a faux documentary, a venerable tradition – it is the ripping-off-a-plaster theory of infodumping – which works well here (even if it is presumably a legacy of the budget constraints of the original short film). Blomkamp then doubles down by making his protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the subject of a documentary himself. Unfortunately these dual documentaries set up an interference pattern because it soon becomes clear that whilst this new ‘day in the life’ documentary is being told forwards as the bulk of the film, the extracts from the initial ‘talking heads’ documentary were filmed after the events of the movie. The idea is to set up some tension by foreshadowing that something major will happen to Van De Merwe but this is laboured and unnecessary; he is the protagonist, we know something major is going to happen to him. This sort of clumsy redundancy becomes a feature of the film.

The format does have some rewards. Copley – who also produced and starred in Alive In Joburg – gives a brilliant, naturalistic performance as the everyman MNU middle manager with inevitable David Brent-ish overtones. He is one of the best things about District 9 but he is a locus of realism in a film that otherwise has all the nonsense of a Hollywood shoot ‘em up whilst taking place in a context (post-Apartheid South Africa) that makes the stakes for failure considerably higher. For example, nothing abot MNU makes sense from their mandate down to their name – Multi National United? Really? More importantly, the whole catalyst for the film – MNU’s resettlement of the district to a “reserve” hundreds of kilometres away – only makes sense if you consider it as exactly what it is: a direct analogy for District Six.

This was the designation of the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town as a whites-only area in 1966 and the subsequent forced relocation of all non-whites. District 9‘s attempt to revisit this injustice means that while the aliens’ presence in Johannesburg starts as a nice piece of cinematic nose thumbing at American cultural hegemony, it quickly sees them being crudely bludgeoned into symbolic representations of black people. This deprives the aliens of any existence they might have in their own right and means we have, for example, the ridiculous spectacle of Van De Merwe going door to door serving eviction notices to the aliens on behalf of MNU. This is not to mention the problem of getting a bunch of aimless, scavenging drones who breed indiscriminately to stand in for black South Africans. This is a shame because the film is actually very strong on depicting prejudice and institutional racism. Early on Van De Merwe unselfconsciously defends the use of the term “prawns” as a slur because “that is what they look like” and is then filmed awkwardly bonding with his black colleagues. It is this which – if you are able to put to the back of your mind the fact that what you are watching is stupid and potentially offensive – makes the mass eviction serving an impressive piece of film making.

Unfortunately, we then have to snap out of our rigid analogy to accommodate a new film. One of the aliens is apparently less lazy and unintelligent than the rest of his species and has been secretly working on a plan for the last two decades to fix the mothership which has been hanging motionless overhead. This plot element is, in itself, very silly but it also shows that Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell haven’t thought ahead. This is the point where they have to abandon the documentary style as they need to show events elsewhere yet they do not abandon it entirely. This leaves the film an unsettling patchwork of styles with the continuing but sporadic uses of found footage increasingly unlikely and the talking heads increasingly superfluous.

Not long after this departure, Van De Merwe gets splashed with some magic fluid and the film barrels down its new trajectory as an action film. Van De Merwe goes straight home after his hard day’s work because – surprise! – he doesn’t bother to tell anyone he has been contaminated. MNU – surprise! – reveal itself to be a standard Evil Corporation hell bent on grinding Van De Merwe’s bones for bread in search of biotech profits. (Van De Merwe’s boss is also his father-in-law but that does stop him from cheerfully allowing himself to be filmed approving live vivisection. Bloody in-laws.) To survive Van De Merwe must – surprise! – team up with the clever alien, overcome his bigotry and learn important life lessons. It is remarkably hackneyed stuff, a painfully familiar blend of plot holes, clichés, sentimentality and blowing shit up. I said this was incompetent film making but perhaps a more charitable way of describing District 9 is as a film that runs on instinct. This is sustainable at the level of the individual scene but beyond that it disintegrates.

Written by Martin

11 May 2010 at 10:25

Posted in awards, films

Tagged with , ,

6 Responses

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  1. the problem of getting a bunch of aimless, scavenging drones who breed indiscriminately to stand in for black South Africans

    One of the problems I’ve had with other reviewers’ reactions to this film is that it never occurred to me that we were meant to take this presentation of the aliens seriously. It’s pretty common for an upper class to justify their suppression of a lower class by claiming that the latter have no respect for personal property and breed like animals, and you’d expect to find substance abuse, crime, and a short-sighted inability to better their circumstances in a population kept poor, ignorant, and geographically contained. So I just assumed that the aliens were of human-like intelligence and potential, especially as the only alien we get to know is smarter than the hero. It was a great surprise to discover that not only did other reviewers read the aliens as you do here, but that the writer intended for them to be mindless drones and for the alien character to be a genetic fluke. As you say, that has even more unfortunate implications than the portrayal of the Nigerian characters.

    Abigail

    11 May 2010 at 12:16

  2. To be honest, I give the portrayal of the Nigerians a free pass. I didn’t find them problematic at all, they are simply an ethnic gang, extremely common in the real world and in cinema.

    Martin

    11 May 2010 at 12:29

  3. As I said at the time, I don’t see the point of the engagement with apartheid.

    Surely the point of an allegory is to highlight some neglected characteristic of the thing itself?

    But this is set in South Africa and it’s LIKE apartheid but with aliens. That’s not highlighting anything… if anything it’s legitimising Apartheid by suggesting that black people were in some way aliens.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    11 May 2010 at 15:59

  4. It is funny that exactly the same problem occurs with Avatar. Two (white, male) directors approach a film with obvious good intentions to publicise historical wrongs against victims of colonialism. Unfortunately, they lack the intellect or nous to fully think through the implications of their quick and dirty substitution of aliens for races. This means that following the analogy through quickly leads you into a very bad place which the directors might not have intended but weren’t clever enough to avoid.

    It is for this reason that – to my massive surprise – Star Trek will be placed above both on them on my Hugo ballot.

    Martin

    11 May 2010 at 16:16

  5. My enduring impression of the film was that large sections of it felt like a video game adaptation.

    Rich

    11 May 2010 at 18:57

  6. [...] people who might have enjoyed Monsters were probably put off by it being marketed as a variation on District 9 (“After six years, they’re no longer aliens. They’re residents”) when it [...]


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