Monday, August 17, 2009
New Look, Old News: District 9
There are few things more maddening than feeling let down by a movie you didn’t have particularly high hopes for. Alas, that was my experience with District 9. A sci-fi yarn set – gasp – right here on a mostly modern-looking Earth, District 9 looks atypical enough for just long enough to seem almost original. But this is a tease. Once we get over the (refreshing) snubbing of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, for use as a backdrop for this tale’s apocalyptic action in favor of some gritty shantytowns in Johannesburg, South Africa – begging the question, “What would Roland Emmerich blow up?” – the thrill is gone. District 9 hints at serious political and sociological allegory but never quite commits to it. It entices us with cerebral come-ons and then leaves us hanging. It is, in short, heaping with premise but lacking in payoff, unless of course you count the “explosive” final act. Oh, yes, make no mistake about it, District 9 is an all too familiar action flick.
If only it were an effective one, then it would be worth celebrating, but District 9 suffers from some of the sloppiest plot construction since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Like that Steven Spielberg snoozer, written by David Koepp, District 9, by director Neill Blomkamp with Terri Tatchell, doesn’t demonstrate that its creators appreciate the difference between doing exhilarating things and actually being exhilarating. For example, do you know what’s twice as gripping as two narrow escapes from certain doom? It’s one narrow escape from certain doom! District 9, subscribing to the Michael Bay rule of more-is-more, thinks it’s four, and then some. The film’s latter half charges through narrow escapes like Indy IV plunged over waterfalls, lazily recycling a structurally breathtaking device until it becomes ordinary, predictable and boring. District 9 doesn’t even need a sequel to fill us with the sense that we’ve been there, done that.
This void of fulfilling drama and suspense isn’t something that can be filled by having a main character dropping f-bombs like a Martin Scorsese lead in an effort to transform him from a feeble geek into an untamable action-hero, but that pretty much describes the evolution of Sharlto Copley’s Wikus Van De Merwe. Likewise, no amount of camera jiggling can distract from the plot’s aimless momentum, though Blomkamp goes positively Paul Greengrass on us over the film’s final half. (Aside: Anyone who griped about the now wildly exaggerated shaky-cam in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which is actually only disorienting over its first-opinion-forming opening 15 minutes, had better take District 9 to task for being doubly more discombobulating.) And, just so we’re clear, it’s never a good idea to have the main character’s actions directly contradict his utmost motivations in the name of temporarily goosing the action. (Again, the sins of Indy IV resurface.)
Let’s go into more detail on that last part. (Warning: Nothing But Spoilers Ahead!) Tell me, if you’re a paper-shuffling bureaucrat who has begun to transform into an alien “prawn,” and you have no idea how to reverse this devolution, and you have no friends who are willing to help, and you are being hunted down by men with guns under the order of your father-in-law, and you are suffering from an infection that was caused by your ignorance of alien technology, would you attack the one person who says he can end your Kafka-esque metamorphosis simply because you don’t like his timeline? Furthermore, would you bet that you stood a better chance of getting back to normal by attempting to fly alien spacecraft that you’ve never seen before in an effort to dock at the giant mother ship hovering above, which presumably you’ve never been on before, so that you can then begin searching for the antidote that you wouldn’t recognize to cure the infection that you don’t understand? Seriously, would you?
There are other questions, too. Like, why wouldn’t you kill the arms dealer turned arms mealer who first wanted to chop off your alien appendage and eat it in front of you and then, after one of your many avoiding-certain-doom-getaways, swore he’d track you down and kill you? And why is it that the aliens’ armored suit – inspired by Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane, or maybe Transformers – fits a human so well? And why do the prawns show no interest in using their own advanced weaponry to demand their cat-food smack, rather than trading it away? And why is it that a metal door is capable of stopping all manner of bullets when held up as a shield while running through a war zone? And does that explain why an alien would make a run to safety before his buddy provided him with cover-fire?
In regard to another film, this would be unfair nitpicking, but not with District 9. The very premise of the film suggests that it’s something more, calls on us to look closer, suckers us into believing that it has something meaningful to say with its historical allusions to apartheid, the Holocaust, Guantanamo Bay, Halliburton and whatever else. But it’s difficult to look deeper when everything is exploding around us, including the notion that District 9 has more in common with a mind-teaser like Moon than with a mind-number like Transformers 2. I concede that District 9 delivers more political commentary than the average summer blockbuster, but that’s like praising Nicolas Cage for delivering a performance that’s only somewhat unintentionally hilarious Knowing. Replace Johannesburg with New York and District 9’s potency would evaporate instantly, along with any African-bred indie chic mystique. The bad news for sci-fi fanboys is that District 9 isn’t as thoughtful as it pretends. The good news is that The Dark Knight’s political commentary – intentional or not – now seems all the more trenchant.