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.

18 comments:

Fox said...

The bad news for sci-fi fanboys is that District 9 isn’t as thoughtful as it pretends....

Hallelujah and high-fives for that one, Jason!

Great write-up by the way. It's the most level-headed I've read thus far, and it's damn refreshing in the face of all the slobbering that I've been reading through at Metacritic. My sense is that a come-to-Jesus backlash is coming for this film. The fanboys that got advanced screenings hyped it up, and now it's getting its much deserved come down.

You make lots of good points of inaccuracy and "huh?" moments in District 9, but I wanted to ask what you thought about the sympathy that the film asks of us. Obviously Bloomkamp draws that from the father/son prawn and the "please don't shoot" prawn at the weapons factory, but did he expect us to forget the savagery he spelled out for us in the beginning?: The killing of humans, the thrashing and theft of property, the derailing of trains, beheading of humans, etc.? And how about the savagery of using their own kind in cockfighting rings?? (Lame humor, btw).

If Bloomkamp wanted to humanize these aliens, he sure did an awful job of it. One sensible prawn and his cute son ain't gonna cut it. Neither is making every single member of the establishment/military, besides Wikus, look like immoral red-fanged opportunists. This is video game moralizing. To use this logic to make an allegory out of actual suffering or oppression that has occured (like the ones you listed) is, I think, to insult and simplify real oppression.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Though I did sense that there was a lot of positive buzz about this film, I still haven't done my Metacritic reading. Just want to make it clear that this is a response to the film itself and not intended as contrarian backlash (not that you were implying as much).

As for the "sympathy" toward the prawn. I noticed the inconsistencies that you pointed out but, in light of those other things that irked me, it bothered me more from a plot perspective. It's as if Blomkamp couldn't decide: these prawns are dangerous or just mean looking; these prawns should be confined or they're just misunderstood; these prawns do fight against the humans or they allow themselves to be slaughtered. In a sci-fi or fantasy film, if I don't understand the "rules" of the world that's being created, it all becomes an arbitrary mess.

So, like I said, my first complaint was from a plot perspective. Then again, the inconsistencies you addressed were part of what I was referring to when I suggested that District 9 hints at allegory but never commits to it. I think the unusual African setting and the quick-and-easy political references -- Jim Crow-esque signs, razor-wire rimmed compounds and use of the term "concentration camps" -- baits us into thinking that this film provides biting commentary. But I didn't see it.

I'm curious to go to Metacritic and see if I can find a review that articulates depth beyond these token gestures.

FilmDr said...

Good points. Your critique reminds me of the kind of problems John Simon has with lots of films--once the plausibility goes, there's little of interest for him. At one point, you wrote "Replace Johannesburg with New York and District 9’s potency would evaporate instantly, along with any African-bred indie chic mystique." District 9 is compelling because it directs the audience's attention to a shanty town and the way one group of people (or species) can exploit another. Even given the film's flaws, there's enough truth in that underhanded systematic power game to make the film more memorable than your average alien flick. It would be interesting to compare District 9 to City of God for that reason. Or you could compare it to Bruce Banner's time in a slumlike area in Brazil in The Incredible Hulk. I guess it depends how an image like that is used in a movie.

Fox said...

In a sci-fi or fantasy film, if I don't understand the "rules" of the world that's being created, it all becomes an arbitrary mess....

I think that is exactly why a film like District 9 has resonanted in our video game obsessed culture. I thought it was a joke back when Peter Travers reviewed Grand Theft Auto in Rolling Stone, but it wasn't. New audiences are demanding less logic from new entertainment. Meaning, they will gladly forget the massive amount of inconsistencies if it ultimately gets them to an "ain't it cool" conclusion.

Laspses in logic are fine in something illogocal and spoofy like Dead Alive, but not in something that begs to make a social statement.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: It does depend on how the image is used. As Tommy Salami said in the comments section of He Shot Cyrus, “It doesn't matter if your story alludes to historical events we abhor or revere, it has to be intelligent about it.” My guess, without going to Metacritic yet, is that many District 9 supporters might be so happy to see any political allusion whatsoever (“hey, it’s better than Transformers!”) that they overlook what a dead-end those allusions provide. (Or perhaps I have overlooked their depth; I’ll admit it if I’m proven wrong.)

As for that line you quoted from my own review: As I wrote it I thought about Brick, of all things. One could argue, I suppose, that if you take away the gimmick of having high schoolers involved in a noir with dialogue that seems straight out of Dashiell Hammett, then it wouldn’t be much of a movie. And that’s true, to a point. But I’d argue that Brick makes its genre allusions more intelligently and with greater effect than District 9 achieves with its historical allusions. (Brick is "intelligent about it," as Tommy might say.) If you want to be more than an action film, you can’t just nod toward those subjects, you’ve got to really commit to them. I think District 9 falls short of that.

Fox: Truly, even if this was “just a video game,” I would appreciate it if it had been done well; I like things that go boom. But the explosions were too meaningless to feel dramatically explosive. In that way it was too much like a video game, indeed. Or, more accurately, like watching someone else play a video game. I wasn’t invested.

PIPER said...

Jason,

Good review here. I think the quote that Fox calls out in his first comment is right on.

I think where this film fails is that it picks and chooses when it wants to be serious and accurate. And it can't really do that, mostly due to the technique Blomkamp uses. I think if you're going to go all documentary, shaky-cam like, you need to back that up.

It was hard for me to buy that the main character was this timid man, but he never seemed scared by the aliens. They tower over him, yet he never seemed to back down. Part of being a bigot is being scared of what we don't know. Only there was no fear with his character towards the aliens.

Anyway, like you said, why didn't the aliens use the guns to get all the cat food they wanted? And get in the robot suit and demand some better quarters? The film asks for you to forgive too much.

Fox said...

But I’d argue that Brick makes its genre allusions more intelligently and with greater effect than District 9 achieves with its historical allusions....

Excellent point. Rian Johnson clearly knows the lingo, the atmosphere, the cliches of the noir genre, while Bloomkamp and writers, quite honestly, don't seem to know much at all (or at least that's the impression that they put up on screen) about history.

Watching Brick, I got the feeling that Johnson had done his homework. With District 9, I get the feeling that the filmmakers heard something, somewhere, one time about various oppressions. True, Bloomkamp is South African, so he's close to the ghosts of apartheid, but regional proximity doesn't necessarily give a person perspective or authority on a subject. You gotta SHOW me.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I can relate to someone who saw District 9 as a boring, unimpressive flick. Sorry but this way over hype sci-fi movie has such a fragmented storyline that when you give it some thought makes no sense whatsoever.

This movie is not a new genre and it will not have any lasting power over the test of time.

Daniel Getahun said...

Wow, I'm surprised to come here and find that you've made all of the same arguments as me, but much more concisely (and we both love those gaps-in-logic questions, don't we? I had to laugh aloud at the cover fire nitpick).

Really great point about changing the setting to New York and ending up with the same movie but less gushing. Also, I did appreciate Copley's performance but it's true that he doesn't really have to shift gears very much. From the outset the guy is just kind of weird, like he's always hopped up on something.

I'm in a tough spot with this movie, tempted to nitpick it to death but really wanting to appreciate it for not being a sequel and at least kind of attempting to bring something new to the table. Tough call, but I'm leaning toward the nitpicking...

Jack said...

Alien Nation Part Deux. Only more pretentious.

Scott said...

I'm in a tough spot with this movie, tempted to nitpick it to death but really wanting to appreciate it for not being a sequel and at least kind of attempting to bring something new to the table. Tough call, but I'm leaning toward the nitpicking...

I'm heading that way myself, but there's no getting around the fact that, for me anyway, the first 40 minutes or so were genuinely exhilarating and involving on almost every level. At the very least, it FELT fresh whereas the second and third acts felt like...well, honestly, if you put the outline next to that of The Island, it'd be the same movie.

What's kind of puzzling me about the reaction, beyond the general claims of "awesome" and, most bewildering, "perfect," is that so many people keep positing this as a movie that doesn't spoon-feed the audience, when the whole first act is a documentary telling you the entire history of the world we're being thrust into. I can't think of a more direct feeding.

Another fun gap-in-logic: magical bullets. When Wikus and Christopher invade the compound, a team comes in and shoots the place to hell. Wikus takes cover, but Christopher stays out in the open, standing perfectly still, and receives not a scratch. Of course, the lead soldier guy (the bald cliche) pulls the same move against Wikus, so I guess it's sort of an even field.

Although the main soldier guy chose to not eliminate his main target when he had a chance, and decided to chat with him instead. Like you said, in any other movie it'd be par for the course, but this is supposed to be realistic.

Hokahey said...

I'm with you on this one. I found some elements to enjoy, but I was mostly disappointed as you will see if you read my post. All the logic and plot loopholes you point out are good calls; there's a lot that doesn't make sense here. For me the biggest flaw was not evoking a sense of the alien multitude supposedly living in this shantytown. Also, I had the same problem with the character of Wikus. The whole ending implies a sequel. I hope it doesn't happen.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the further comments, all. It's been a busy week, but I've squeezed in some reading of District 9 reviews, and of the complimentary ones I see a lot of reviews calling the film "original," but I've yet to see that claim backed up with compelling evidence.

Daniel: Read your review. Wow, you made my nitpicking look like I went easy on District 9. Good stuff!

Jack: Well said!

Scott: See, I can't even say I was much into the film in the first place. The setting tickled me just enough. But I figured out quickly that it was all a facade.

And, really, what was with all those "I'm about to kill you, so let's talk" moments? Ugh! Can those be outlawed, please!

Hokahey: The whole presentation of the shantytown was very inconsistent. There were multitudes one moment, and it was quiet the next. We feared the prawn one moment, and then not in another. It wasn't a very convincing setting, beyond looking like an actual shantytown in Africa.

Nettie said...

Okay...I'm just going to simply say this. You speak in such logic about what a person would/should do in that situation as if he were thinking in his right mind 100% of the time. We always tend to apply our rational, logical, well thought out ideas to the most bizzar, and unbelievable circumstances. If you were running around with a funky arm would you be in your right mind...LOL. He was feeling desparate and probably a little bit insane. The thought that he would not get help for 3 years made him snap I think. Or does your logic not fit that theory?

Jason Bellamy said...

Nettie: I thought about that. But that's a BIG snap. Because to that point Wikus' option is wait three years and get help or get no help at all. If he'd beaten the one "guy" who could help him or threatened to kill his son, something like that, I could have rolled with it. In fact, I could have rolled with it if he'd hit his buddy and then climbed into the alien craft and had an "oh shit" moment of realization that he didn't know how to fly the thing or where to fly the thing to or what to do once he got there.

District 9 asks us to believe that when Wikus gets into the alien craft that he knows what he's doing, when in fact the only place he's going in that ship is to the next crisis point in the plot. That's lazy screenwriting to me. The crisis points should find Wikus, not the other way around. We can argue that Wikus isn't thinking clearly, and so maybe he makes decisions without thinking things through. Fair enough. But each act should have an immediate motive. Attacking Chris? That has an immediate motive: he's frustrated and wants better results. But once he climbs into the cockpit of that plane, well, where is he going? What's he doing? What does he think will happen next? There's no even semi-plausible answer here. The only reason he goes up, is so he can be shot down.

Sean Weatherby said...

D-9 definitely has a lot going for it -- character development, great acting a at least a few people, awesome alien weapons; it felt a bit preachy at times at different times though

watch movies said...

Everyone most see this movie! maybe it is not as Sci-Fi as people think it is, but it is a good movie with a great story and important issues. and of course - this movie is not an "authentic" Hollywood movie!

alicia said...

I only made it through about 20 minutes of this movie because by then the amount of things that made no sense was ridiculous.

-how does a ship that doesn't work float above a city?
-why did they fence them in if they thought they were dangerous, but not guard the entrance?
-if the prawns were able to learn to be in gangs, wouldn't a few of them learned to be civil?
-how did they expect an alien race to sign eviction notices, even understand what that meant?
-did the city expect the aliens to understand the picture signs that said no non humans allowed?

I had to quit watching...maybe it turned out great, but I'll never know