“We need your signature on this eviction notice.”
After my first viewing of District 9, I wondered what all the fuss was about. I was promised ‘the greatest science fiction film in years’ and ‘the cleverest film of 2009’ by The Independent. However, I was disappointed. It was neither of the two. The only plausible reason for its critical acclaim was the obvious apartheid parallel within the film; of course, it must be clever AND brilliant if it takes a swipe at apartheid! People who wouldn’t usually give science fiction the time of day proclaimed it as superb, yet they were blinded by the obvious parallel. My second viewing has not changed my initial opinion of the movie…which was low.
The backstory: Aliens (derogatorily referred to as ‘prawns’) landed in Johannesburg, yet they didn’t come to invade or to befriend humanity. They are refugees (workers who have no initiative or orders). They are soon segregated into ‘District 9.’ The South African government hires out Multinational United to remove the prawns and relocate them to ‘District 10,’ a modern concentration camp. Our main character, Wikus van de Merwe, is selected to head the team about to evict the prawns. He gets sprayed with some alien fluid, begins to turn alien, and things head downhill from there.
“This is tangled. This is tangled.”
Admittedly, the first half an hour or so is brilliant, giving us snippets of information about the aliens in a documentary fashion. It’s a novel approach that gives us all the information we need, without a banal prologue or scroll. However, the most jarring aspect of the film is when it suddenly switches from this fashion to a normal ‘film-perspective.’ From then on, it changes it between film footage and CCTV footage, and I found this quite distracting. The switch didn’t really make any sense.
The set-up is very promising: these aliens have landed by accident. As referenced in the film, they didn’t choose New York or any major Western city. And, of course, I would usually love it thanks to the 1980s feel of the film, and the many references to 1980s science fiction. Wikus’ transformation into a f**king prawn owes a lot to The Fly, as evident in the scenes where he loses his nails and teeth. However, the alien claw that replaces his hand looks flimsy, and less convincing than anything you will see in The Fly. MNU is the evil private military corporation, the staple of great 80s sci fi films as Robocop. They act without mercy, without thought for humanity: they just want the alien weapons (only aliens can use the alien weapons, so Wikus’ combined alien/human DNA is of vital importance to them).
“ I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this. I love watching you prawns die.”
One of my main problems with this film is the anti-human vibe running throughout the film; the people are uniformly bad, even Wikus. He enjoys watching alien eggs ‘pop like popcorn,’ for example. Although an entertaining fellow, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him, as he’s a bastard. All of the employees of MNU are arrogant bastards, the Nigerian gangs who abuse the prawns are bastards, and even Wikus’ wife is a bastard. Of course, Wikus’ transformation into an alien is a form of redemption for his lack of humanity. But along the way he betrays an alien simply trying to help him. He’s selfishly obsessed with returning to his human form, and thus his wife.
Misanthropy reigns in District 9, which is the most serious divergence from classic 1980s science fiction. When every human is reprehensible, and every alien is simply a poor refugee turned evil by mistreatment, there’s something very wrong with this picture. It’s far too black and white; no shades of grey are allowed. Have we lost our love of humanity? For example, in Avatar, the only people we’re meant to sympathise with in Avatar are the Na’vi and those humans trying to help the Na’vi; the rest are brutal, selfish humans.
District 9 is decent science fiction fare, but nothing more, and nothing less. It handpicks images from 1980s science fiction films whilst forgetting the theme of hope for humanity that ran throughout those films. I can only ascribe the mass critical acclaim for District 9 to its obvious parallel with apartheid, and the fact that it’s a small, non-Hollywood independent film.
VERDICT: 5/10. Thoroughly average science fiction fare that uses its allegory of apartheid to hide its many flaws.
What do you think about District 9? Leave your comments below!