I have some good news and some bad news – District 9 is at once a whole lot smarter and a whole lot dumber than just about everyone would have you believe.
Let’s start with the smart, since co-writer/director/creator Neill Blomkamp does. Yes, the film heavily invokes the apartheid that formally separated blacks from whites in South Africa for almost fifty years. But that’s not a particularly “smart” idea. It’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with that (especially since it’s been done before). It is, however, an interesting way of expressing a lot of the thoughts and feelings Blomkamp must have from growing up under Apartheid, and (this is where the smart comes in) he goes all the way with his idea. Mild spoilers do follow, but I can’t think of a science fiction world this fully realized since Alfonso Cuaron’s shoulda-been-revolutionary Children of Men.
It’s easy to come up with the idea for aliens landing on Earth and humans shoving them into a ghetto. It’s another thing to make the first twenty-thirty minutes basically a documentary about that area. It’s on a whole other planet to come up with interspecies prostitution as a major problem within District 9, the slum the aliens are relegated to. It’s that level of detail that brings this world alive, makes it tick. And the first half an hour is brilliant. We’re introduced to Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley, in a tremendous performance), who, without explaining too much, is basically a government employee tasked with evicting the aliens from District 9 to a new, more restrictive camp.
Wikus, at least at the start, is the kind of character we could use more of in mainstream entertainment. Unlikable on nearly every level except for the fact that he’d probably be nice to you if he were your neighbor, Wikus is the sort of friendly bigot who believes he treats the aliens with basic respect, all the while exhilarated when he gets the chance to order the abortion of hundreds of alien fetuses. With a flamethrower. He’s the guy from the IRS who smiles when he comes to audit you. He might say he’s just doing his job, but you know otherwise.
And, you know, if it weren’t for the fact that, through the mix of documentary aesthetics and cinema vérité, the film so fervently announces itself as some new, exciting, different, fresh, and relevant, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointed with the turn in takes around the beginning of act two.
As I felt the film slowly shift from its docudrama to the same outline as Michael Bay’s The Island, I felt a profound disappointment. Suddenly, Wikus, a desk-jockey bureaucrat, becomes an action hero. Suddenly, the chase is on. Suddenly, there’s a villain, for god’s sake, and not a terribly good one – just a soldier leading an elite death squad (and not a terribly good death squad). You know, just like in The Island. And while execution always trumps conception, for a film that touted itself as not just different and fresh, but actively intelligent, the shift from political thriller to routine action movie is a really, really dumb move.
Now, don’t get me wrong…Neill Blomkamp isn’t just a clever man, but a damn good director. In a year that has given us everything from the purposefully abstract (Public Enemies) and the accidentally incoherent (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) in our action movies, a first-time director using a handheld aesthetic crafted a totally readable film full of genuinely thrilling action set pieces. That they’re trapped in a misfire of a screenplay is unfortunate, but I have high hopes for Blomkamp’s future. Just as long as he doesn’t buy into the hype that now surrounds him.