Finally went to see District 9 last night, and I have to say that I agree with the general assessment that the satire was an inch deep, but that’s no reason to avoid this movie. But don’t expect depth. This short film by director Neil Blomkamp strikes me as more clever satire, particularly of the way that foreign aid all too often concentrates on sexy solutions over cost-effective ones. That said, I’m really glad I saw this movie, as someone who is a fan of good, old-fashioned thrill rides. And the placement of the action in South Africa works not just because of culturally specific things that move the plot, but also just because it’s a nice break from the relentless insistence from all other Hollywood movies that aliens are irresistibly attracted to American cities, and only Americans have the wherewithall to really deal with aliens in any capacity. The action sequences were innovative, and the only thing close to them that I can remember are those in Children of Men, and that movie was way serious, where as this movie is just about having a good time. It seamlessly blends elements from Independence Day and E.T., without being nearly as irritating as either movie.
Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t land some satirical punches, both of the form of the alien invasion movie and the larger cultural context. My favorite was the damning line when the main character Wikus, a bumbling bureaucrat turned scrappy fighter for his new alien friends, is astonished that one of the aliens has built all these fancy computers in his shack—he didn’t know that “prawns” (what humans call the aliens) could be so smart. You know, even though they have developed technology far beyond anything humans have come up with. The bureaucratic niceties used to justify the forced relocation of District 9 are based on real events, ones that happened in the 1970s, however, and so it really feels more like a backdrop and an explanation for why South Africa would immediately react to an alien invasion by erecting slums and then forcibly relocating them with a bunch of bullshit excuses. I don’t have a problem with this, really. Trying to graft earnest messages about apartheid onto this movie would have put it firmly into the territory of denouncing kitten-burning. Making South Africa’s history a backdrop is about treating the audience like they’re intelligent. One thing I did find interesting was how the movie showed that anti-alien prejudice from the people was being exploited by corporate power to oppress the aliens for the sole purpose of stealing their weapons technology.
I honestly didn’t think the movie had as many plot holes as I was led to believe. For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the big fucking robot—specifically, “Why didn’t the aliens use that big fucking robot earlier, if they had it all along?” But it makes sense. The robot is big and badass and thrilling, but it was only badass enough to hold off about 30-50 soldiers for 15 minutes before rocket launchers and other weaponry took it down. Despite the individual badassness of alien weapons, they’re simply outgunned because they’re outmanned. But more importantly, for what? What exactly would the aliens do with all that technology? Sure, they could rise up and take over Johannesburg, but for what purpose? Starting a war like that and expecting it would just be over once they overtook the city is a joke. The aliens appear to be more interested in having specific, achievable goals in mind before busting out the big guns, goals more specific than, “We’ll just take over the city and be greeted with roses and kisses.” Which would have made these fictional, cat food-huffing aliens better leaders than the Bush administration. Considering how dependent the aliens were on human scraps and food, it’s understandable that they’d accept being hoarded into a slum, since they don’t seem to have any other options.
Anyway, it’s a funny movie with some awesome action sequences that doesn’t get too stupid. Not Oscar material, but a fine way to spend a couple of hours.