District 9 had a chance to be a superior example of smart science fiction.
The movie has an inspired sociopolitical conceit at its core, yet doesn’t do nearly enough with it. I don’t know if cowriter and director Neill Blomkamp was afraid of becoming too preachy – that’s a danger with these sorts of things – or if he lacks the intellectual chops to expand upon the picture’s underlying implications. Either way, we’re left with a wild, uneven, often nasty little B movie that still stands as one of the more intriguing efforts of this lackluster summer.
Blomkamp was originally tapped by producer Peter Jackson to helm a movie version of the videogame “Halo,” but when that project fell apart they turned to a feature-length expansion of a short film Blomkamp had already made.
A native South African, Blomkamp envisioned a scenario in which an alien spacecraft had been hovering over Johannesburg for 20 years. Upon the ship’s arrival, the wiry, bug-like aliens inside were found to be sick and easily overcome, like desperate refugees. The government eventually herded them into their own district – the garbage-strewn slum of the title – where they’ve been scrounging out a sad existence ever since.
The allusions to apartheid are obvious, and early on District 9 even goes beyond those to also make eerie, unsettling references to both the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Africa. At one point, a character explains the derogatory name for the aliens – “prawns” – with the justification, “That’s what they look like.” You’ll find yourself agreeing, then shamefully realizing this is exactly the sort of ethnic generalizing that something such as apartheid feeds on.
All of this intriguing stuff comes early on, before the movie’s narrative kicks in. That story – about a bumbling bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) who is given the doomed job of relocating the alien population to a tent city outside of Johannesburg – soon devolves into a gory, weapons-glorifying action flick, with little of the allegorical juice of the opening segment.
District 9 has its own, unique DNA, to be sure. When Copley’s government drone comes into contact with some alien fluid and undergoes a few, um, changes, we head into the territory of Jackson’s early horror romps and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Yet in the end the idea behind the movie is more intriguing than the film itself. I’m still excited about the potential of District 9. The problem is, I’ve already seen it.