Wednesday, October 07, 2009
A One-Note Shtick
By Jonathan Pacheco
The initial draft of this review spent 850+ words droning on about the mockumentary aesthetic of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, going back and forth on whether or not to fault the film for abandoning said aesthetic halfway through the film. When I gave the draft to my friend and unofficial editor, her notes boiled down to this: “Why am I reading this?” My review of District 9 had no hook, no real reason to be read. I realized that my friend didn’t care about what I had to say because I didn’t care about this film. District 9, while not the instant classic many hyped it up to be, really isn’t a bad movie; I enjoyed myself watching it. So why, then, do I feel nothing for it?
When you get down to it, District 9 exists because of its gimmick concept: it’s a fake documentary about humans oppressing aliens — and not the other way around. The film follows the recent effort by a private military contractor, Multinational United (MNU), to move all the aliens from their current home, the slum-like District 9, to the new, more controlled District 10. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a by-the-books company man, leads this operation, bending morals and laws to make the move as swift as possible. His troubles begin when he’s exposed to an alien biotechnology during the operation.
Like Cloverfield before it, District 9 fascinates until one looks beyond the film’s thin stylistic veneer. I’ll admit, the incorporation of state-of-the-art CG into shaky-cam footage hypnotizes me; a few years ago this was barely possible. Now it’s the de facto technique to ensure your computer generated objects “seem more real,” and most of the time it works. But all you’ll find behind this aesthetic in District 9 is a fairly color-by-numbers action flick, as the movie takes few risks in its portrayal of its reluctant hero, the predictable villains, or any of their interactions. Even the characterization of the maltreated aliens offers little originality beyond the initial switcheroo setup. The “prawns,” as they’re degradingly called, are depicted as violent, relatively unintelligent, and slightly barbaric creatures (of course, not nearly as savage as the evil corporate white man). If the aliens were Africans and the intelligent “prawn” Christopher Johnson was played by Djimon Hounsou, you’d find yourself watching Blood Diamond.
Blomkamp flaunts the themes of racism and xenophobia, making no attempt at subtlety (though with a plot involving persecuted “aliens,” how subtle can you really get?). Consequently, District 9 subjects us to tried-and-true action flick scenes, such as when Wikus and Christopher join forces to tag-team their way through adversity, reaching their goals and gaining a greater appreciation for the other’s uniqueness. Right. Didn’t that also happen in Rush Hour? What seems to be the difference maker for a lot of critics and viewers is the film’s overt political metaphor involving the apartheid (and post-apartheid) system of segregation in South Africa’s history and present day. I won’t lie and tell you I knew the history of these occurrences when I watched District 9, but I also won’t lie and tell you that the symbolism makes much of a difference. I find myself trying to care about the film’s well-meaning usage of the metaphor, but it really has nothing interesting or resonating to say other than, “This is some bad stuff going on, man.”
Comparatively, yes, it’s 10 times more engaging and intelligent than the summer action fare that reigned over multiple screens at your local theater, but objectively, District 9 is a decent cinematic diversion and not much else. By resorting to character clichés and settling for shallow metaphors, Blomkamp prevents himself from elevating his film beyond much other than a stylistic gimmick. Gimmicks can be fun, but once they’re over, why should I care?