Summer 2009 saw the birth of an interesting piece of terminology. Reflecting the success of titles such as Iron Man (2008), Terminator Salvation (2009) and the Transformers series, “robots hitting each other” has become a short-hand way of referring to the kind of shallow and crassly commercial genre film-making that is currently dominating Hollywood release schedules. Films not merely unintelligent but actually hostile to thought. Films designed to eliminate critical distance through the sensorial onslaught of bloated running times packed with explosions, violence and spectacle. Films that are the cinematic equivalent to the US using loud music to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy during the invasion of Panama. Given a cultural climate in which Hollywood is essentially using psychological warfare against its own customers, it is only natural that many of us should yearn for something more. Ever since the first trailers dropped, Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 has presented itself as a summer film with that little something extra : Science fiction that rises above robots hitting each other to become genuinely thought provoking and intelligent. However, the reality of District 9 is that what ideas it has are used up in the first twenty minutes, after which the film collapses into a mire of clumsy metaphors, poorly written characters and the kind of plot you would find only in the most hollow-skulled of video games.
Let us start with the good. District 9 opens with all of the trappings of the faux-documentary (including backstory-spouting talking heads) as it charts the rise of xenophobic boob Wikus van der Maewe (Sharlto Copley) to unexpected field commander of the corporate force charged with relocating the aliens from a Johannesburg slum to a freshly built concentration camp hundreds of miles from human eyes. The film initially depicts the ‘Prawns’ (as it calls the aliens) as contemptible bottom feeders living savage lives amongst filth and violence. A decadent and barely sentient species all too eager to sell their technological heritage off to gangsters in return for a few tins of cat food. Of course, as this section of the film is supposed to be a documentary, we expect it to be ‘spun’ to appeal to the xenophobic sensibilities that are both common among humans, and hugely beneficial to a multinational corporation eager to experiment on the aliens. However, this vision of the Prawns starts to unravel when, during a Cops-style visit to an alien shack, Wikus is sprayed with alien rocket fuel that turns him into a Prawn.
This racial metaphor works on a number of levels. Firstly, there are the parallels between the ways in which the humans mistreat the aliens and the ways in which the White minority mistreated the Black majority during South Africa’s apartheid era. They do not merely tolerate this mistreatment but actively take part in the process of demonisation, justifying their xenophobia through the adoption of spurious rationalisations such as the idea that the Prawns on Earth are members of some intellectually sub-par worker caste. Secondly, Wikus’ transformation is a metaphor for the process of social inclusion and the growth of empathy that comes from that integration. The problem is that while all of these ideas are present in the film, they are mostly compressed into the first twenty minutes. This compression requires the use of some quite heavy-handed and clumsy narrative techniques.
For example, having initially presented the Prawns as savage slum-dwellers, the film then attempts to make them appear more sympathetic. However, rather than elevating the entire species by suggesting some hidden social order or sign of civilisation beneath the grime and savagery of Prawn existence, Blomkamp introduces us to a ridiculously intelligent Prawn (bizarrely named Christopher) and gives him a small child to look after. Setting aside the issue of how sentimental and manipulative it is to try and make a character appear sympathetic by giving them a child to look after, Blomkamp’s introduction of such a supremely competent Prawn into the story only manages to make the other Prawns look savage, thereby justifying the xenophobic attitudes towards the aliens in the first place. Indeed, towards the end of the film, a bunch of Prawns tear a human to pieces and feast upon the remains… these are not the actions of misunderstood ‘noble savages’ but of vicious and dangerous wild animals understandably kept separate from the rest of the population.
Also problematic is the point of all of this metaphorical posturing. Pierre Boulle’s original Planet of the Apes (1968) novel warned against the perils of racism and slavery on the grounds that a mistreated slave race could all too easily rise up and over-throw its masters. While this type of idea is very much ‘of its time’, it has a clear satirical target. However, District 9’s targets are much less clear. If the point of the film is to show us humanity’s capacity for xenophobia then surely the history of South Africa even without aliens would have been sufficient. It is as though Blomkamp created a version of the Second World War in which, instead of trying to exterminate the Jews, the Nazis murdered millions of aliens. Sure you’d get the little girl shouting “Goodbye Prawns!” but it is hard to see what else might be achieved by such a juxtaposition. Of course, these kinds of tortured racial metaphors and crudely juxtaposed ideas would be easy to live with if only District 9 had been a well-made film but its plotting is nothing short of disastrous.
Neil Blomkamp’s relationship with producer Peter Jackson includes not only District 9 but also the abortive attempt to make a film based upon the Halo video game franchise. In fact, back in 2007 Blomkamp directed a short live-action film based upon Halo that features a number of visual motifs also present in District 9. However, aside from images of spaceships hovering in the distance, Halo also seems to have inspired Blomkamp’s approach to plotting. Indeed, once the initial twenty minutes of ideas are out the way, the film transitions not so much into a second and third act as a series of levels :
- Wikus fights his way out of corporate building.
- Wikus fights his way out of Nigerian gangster stronghold.
- Wikus and Christopher fight their way into corporate building.
- Wikus and Christopher fight their way out of corporate building.
- Wikus climbs into mechanised exoskeleton and takes up escort duties as Christopher runs to the spaceship.
- Wikus has a final boss fight with the commander of the corporation’s mercenary army while at the controls of the damaged exoskeleton.
However, to describe District 9’s plot as nothing but a dreary succession of pointless action sequences is to belittle the impact that can be made with well-directed action sequences. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) is nothing but a series of set-pieces but each one is shot with art and beauty and is filled with tension from beginning to end. District 9’s set-pieces are dull, over-edited, repetitive and predicated on the singular assumption that audiences will never get tired of seeing people explode like water balloons under a hail of alien weapon fire. Even the technical aspects of the film are unworthy of attention. Early on, Blomkamp and his team do a good job of introducing Prawns into what looks like news footage, but the second the camera zooms into a Prawn face the spell is broken and you are struck by how cartoonish the alien features are and how strangely their shells catch the light. At one point, we see Wikus with one alien eye and it looks more like rotoscoping than photo-realistic CGI. However, District 9’s greatest sin is its failure to tell an actual story. Indeed, despite being close to two hours long, the film ends with Christopher promising to return three years later for a sequel. Three years in which Wikus can learn what it is like to live as a Prawn and yet doubtless serve as an important mediating figure in the looming battle between Humanity and the aliens. This means that, in addition to being intellectually confused, poorly written and poorly directed, District 9 is only half a story and I cannot begin to understand why someone would spend $30 million producing half a story. Especially one as dull and dim-witted as this one.