Wednesday, August 26, 2009

District 9

District 9 (TriStar Pictures)
Director: Neill Blomkamp; writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell.

There will be major spoilers.

The best thing about District 9 is purely visual: the haunting image of a huge spacecraft hanging over the city of Johannesburg. It's a nearly constant presence in the film, visible from the city and from open fields -- an enormous enigmatic sign that something is about to happen.

The background for the story, which we learn in a rather ham-handed infodump in the form of a faux documentary, is that 20 years ago a huge alien spaceship arrived and parked itself over Johannesburg and did nothing. Humans went up to the ship in helicopters, cut through the bulkheads and found about a million starving “prawns,” a nickname the aliens were given due to their appearance. These alien refugees were then ferried to Earth, forming a large shantytown encampment of prawns, called District 9, located outside of Johannesburg.

The story resumes at the 20 year mark, as our main character, the overly naïve Wikus (played by relatively unknown actor Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the forced relocation of the prawn population, which has doubled, to a location more distant from Johannesburg (echoing the forced removal of non-whites from District 6 of Cape Town during apartheid).

Predictably, the relocation effort goes badly. Wikus meets a prawn named Christopher Johnson, a name presumably imposed on the prawn by humans, and is accidentally exposed to a mysterious black liquid, which is potent alien technology and biologically active. Over the course of the remainder of the movie Wikus gradually transforms from human to prawn. He forms an uneasy alliance with the prawn, Christopher. If Wikus will help Christopher retrieve the tube of black liquid from the evil corporation that has confiscated it, Christopher will reverse Wikus transformation, returning him to his human form. Their plan, of course, does not work out exactly as they intend.

Much about this movie is quite likeable: it’s energetic, fun, and it has a sense of humor. There is an amusing bit about the alien prawn’s appetite for cans of cat food. One benefit of Wikus’ transformation is that he is able to use prawn weapons, which only fire when used by prawn. (Science fiction readers will recall guns that only fire when certain conditions are met in “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt (1942).)

Unfortunately, the story becomes mired in some cliché movie components: the already mentioned evil corporation, violent private-contractor militia, violent Nigerians, and way too much shoot ’em up, blood, and car crashes. Instead of wasting time with these tired movie elements, the story could have developed along more interesting lines, telling us more about alien culture and history, and perhaps more about Wikus’ relationship with his wife. There was a third act waiting to be written, which had to do with story, rather than chases and guns.

Some mainstream reviews praise this movie for its originality and its ability to use science fiction to comment on present day social issues. This is rather more revealing about the reviewers than the movie. If we skip published science fiction and stay just with movies, Alien Nation (directed by Graham Baker, 1988), depicted stranded aliens who become a crime-ridden underclass in Los Angeles. The aliens were assigned human names. Alien Nation later became a television series, followed by several TV movies. The TV show X-Files made recurring use of a mysterious black liquid, and returned frequently to a continuing story line that included human-alien hybrids. The TV series was followed by two feature films.

District 9 doesn’t answer some basic questions:
1. The alien weaponry shown is rather large and hard to hide. Why wasn’t it confiscated long ago?

2. If there was an alien ship within reach, wouldn’t it have been teeming with human scientists and engineers trying to figure it out? Or scrap metal dealers taking it apart? After 20 years would there be anything left?

3. All the characters behave as if the huge ship is dormant, but how could it be? Vast energies would be required for it to maintain its position. Geosynchronous orbit (staying above the same spot on Earth with no further expenditure of energy) requires a height of 22,000 miles.

Blomkamp, like Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, is making his feature film directing debut, and they both show great potential.

Edit: After a friend and I went to see District 9, we decided to get some dinner. My friend remarked that he would not be having anything with shrimp.

Second edit: There’s an interesting review of District 9 by science fiction authors Howard Waldop and Lawrence Person at Locus Online.

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