I’ve got to admit, this film has been annoying the hell out of me. I saw it last Monday with a spring in my step and my backside on an extra comfy cinema seat, and I can honestly say I haven’t been so fantastically let down by a film like I have with District 9. I don’t think I’ve ever left a cinema feeling so horrifically empty after watching a movie, like my life (or at least in the short term, my afternoon) would’ve been better if I’d have just stayed home and watched Top Gear reruns on Dave. I’ve been sitting on this review for over ten days, and after running into yet more folk who seem to love it, I’ve decided it needed a good seeing to. Take it or leave it.
The story goes that after Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp’s attempt to make a picture based on the massively popular Halo game series fell through, Jackson and his production company Wingnut gave Blomkamp $30 million to make ‘whatever he wanted’. Blomkamp, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa who grew up during apartheid chose to make a sci-fi epic about aliens settling on Earth, but certainly not being welcomed. The prawns, as they’re nicknamed, arrive on a Mothership (don’t they all?) hanging high over the skies of Johannesburg having run out of fuel, and are forced to settle on earth. They live in squalid conditions in shanty town shacks in a place dubbed District 9, and face prejudice and poor treatment by the local humans. Determined to curb the problems the prawns have brought upon the city, a company seemingly created to foster relationships between humans and the visitors decides to attempt a mass-relocation to a new site, essentially a concentration camp.
We follow office worker Wikus Van De Merwe around District 9 as he heads the relocation operation. Wikus seems to have a good understanding of prawn behaviour and can understand their language, which sounds oddly like a collection of clicks and belches, but he, like the soldiers and officials he travels with has a passive racism towards the prawns, treating them as a sub-species throughout the alien evictions. However, it all goes horribly wrong when Wikus accidentally becomes infected by a prawn biological agent, which begin to transform is body horrifically into one of the prawns. His company turns on him and experiments on his changing body, but Wikus escapes into District 9. Soon after his arrival, Wikus learns he must form an alliance with the prawns to restore his transforming body and return home to his wife.
Ok, so far so good. The idea of having native South Africans vehemently opposed to the prawns was an engaging touch, and worked very well. In tandem, the opening is one of the film’s strong points, and is told in docummentary style, interspersed with interviews with prawn experts and employees of the company Wikus works for. This was going really quiet well until Blomkamp decided to use interviews referring to Wikus negatively, seemingly stating that he had turned from the company and betrayed them. Great. So now we already know something terrible happened to our main character and we’ve barely even started the film. I’m stunned that Blomkamp decided that such blatant storytelling and spoon-feeding was necessary this early on in proceedings, as it’s not a particularly nice way of treating your audience. Blomkamp clearly decided that his audience would be focussed on Wikus for most of the film’s first half hour, which is pretty detrimental to the rest of it. Wikus, after infection, isn’t feeling too good by the time he gets home, and has a surprise party thrust upon him as soon as he walks through the door to his loving wife. Who we barely see. For the entire film. Now, the relationship between Wikus and his wife is the real core of the film, because she is why Wikus does what he does. How are we supposed to believe in it if we barely know anything or see anything of the relationship?
Such criticisms don’t overshadow District 9’s strong opening. Oh no, that distinctive honour is left almost entirely to the second half of the film. We abandon the docummentary style and instead follow Wikus on a high-octane action thriller ride as this meek, ill and scared man wields devastating alien weaponry and decapitates, explodes and maims enough soldiers to constitute a war. Wikus’ action hero turn is just about forgiveable, because it makes sense for his character to be upset, and willing to do whatever it takes to get his life back. But from the point that he teams up with his prawn friend and attempts to storm the offices of his former employees, all of the promising build-up work, intelligent dialogue and plot is just thrown out of the window, never to be seen again. In its place, what we get is a dumb, bloody, explosive summer blockbuster. It’s impossible to take District 9 seriously from here onwards, especially when the violence is cranked up to stupendously hilarious proportions.
I’ve had a good look at reviews for District 9, and quite a few people have forgiven the film for this rather gigantic lapse, but why? If you went to a restaurant and had half a good meal followed by a disgusting dessert, would you still mark it highly? Films shouldn’t get free passes just because they look cool, or they start off well. Consistent engagement is something that was clearly beyond Blomkamp when making District 9, which is a shame because there are some good points. Sharlto Copley is quite impressive as Wikus, transforming his character’s behaviour as the film dictates it must. This is Copley’s first film role, and when I discovered that the interview segments conducted with Wikus in his office were ad-libbed, I was certainly more impressed. Sadly, there are no other real performances of note. The worried wife, the lethal businessman, the maniacal shocktrooper are all stereotyped to a T, and are simply functional performances. Again, that engaging secondary apartheid between the prawns and South Africans that was presented so well at the beginning of the film is a missed opportunity to make District 9 into something more, something bigger and ultimately, something worth taking seriously. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen.
Trust me, I did want to like District 9. Really. This isnt criticism or negativity for the sake of evening out the praise heaped upon the film, as I can understand why people regard it so highly. It wouldn’t surprise me it Neill Blomkamp came back with a much better second effort in a few years time, because there’s some impressive groundwork laid here. It’s just a shame it all fell through before the film was over. Recommended if you don’t feel like thinking for too long.