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.