Blockbuster Beat by Sam C. Mac Film

District 9 — Neill Blomkamp

September 5, 2009

The summer movie blockbuster with half a brain, or the one that suggests its audience actually has one, is often revered like the one-eyed man in the valley of the blind. Especially by critics. The latest Star Trek reboot is a good example of this, as a film that doesn’t do much of anything new — in fact it cops a good portion of its plot from the first two original Star Wars movies — but one that supplies audiences with the standard summer-movie thrills minus the typical deadening thud of stupidity we critics would look bad championing. Never explicitly on the lookout for “that film” — the one blockbuster to laud for its comparative superiority — this critic just looks at summer as the worst time at the movies, as part of an increasingly small minority who doesn’t get overly excited about the meal-sized serving of superhero pictures trotted out by the studios week after week for a three month period. Generally speaking, the special-effects-heavy popcorn sequels (and prequels and reboots) don’t give the charge they do so many other people.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some films, like those of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, muster a genuine grandiosity that’s hard to ignore, while others manage to straddle the line separating escapist and intelligent filmmaking in surprisingly successful ways. But for every surprise, like Tony Scott’s Vertigo riff Deja Vu and the Wachowski sisters’ spirited Speed Racer adaptation, there are countless productions that serve as mere fuel for the action junkie, bereft of both style and substance, and when those two things are lacking, it’s hard to care. Star Trek and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra may not be tailor-made to some viewers’ specific interests, but neither is necessarily a bad film.

This is where District 9 comes into the conversation. Neill Blomkamp’s high-concept sci-fi film aims to be the summer’s one-eyed man; a film of supposed intelligence to the weary film critics, who’ve been bruised and beaten by the Transformers and Terminators of the cineplex all summer long. However, District 9 amounts to little more than a messy hodgepodge of contradictory ideologies, genre cliches and inconsistent style. The director obviously has ambition, as evidenced in his film’s initial premise, and this premise does, admittedly, intrigue: Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson (a long way away from the elves and hobbits of his Lord of the Rings series) imagine an alternate history defined by an event that took place in 1981, involving an alien mothership that broke down above the city of Johannesburg. For reasons left comically unexplained, the ship just floats there in mid air, even after the alien race that resided inside (bug-like humanoids we dub “Prawns”) are extracted. Enter the titular District 9, the zone the aliens are confined to which, several years into their stay, begins to look like a colorful slum akin to the Rio de Janeiro of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. An apartheid soon follows, as the human citizens of Johannesburg call for the removal of these “foreigners.” All this information is presented to us in a film-within-a-film conceit, as a pseudo-documentary begins to take shape in the first 30 minutes, intercut with fake newsreel footage and incredibly unsubtle talking heads interviewed about the alien crisis. One of these subjects explains, “Now to everyone’s surprise the ship didn’t come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg,” and with this statement Blomkamp heavy handedly announces the correlation between District 9 and vaguely similar events that took place in Cape Town during the 1970s, when an apartheid regime forced 60,000 residents to relocate to “District Six.” Likewise, in Blomkamp’s film the Prawns are ordered by the government to pick up and move to a new area, later revealed to be little more than a glorified concentration camp, and at least at first we’re led to believe the film might center around this politically-charged event. During this time, we’re introduced to pencil pusher Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), our unwitting “hero,” who’s assigned by his company, Multi-National United (MNU), to single-handedly take on the task of serving the Prawns their “eviction” notices. Seriously. And if any Prawn refuses to sign the paperwork? Wilkus is backed by a battalion of soldiers with heavy artillery to help be persuasive.

It’s around this point that Blomkamp abandons the documentary film-within-a-film approach of his first act in favor of shaky handheld camerawork, and employs a more narrative driven approach revolving around Wilkus. Blomkamp’s new visual aesthetic suggests a first-person perspective realism, but this contradicts the film’s soon established scope—there are plenty of scenes that could not possibly be witnessed by a documenter, most notably those involving the aliens, alone in their homes—and nothing here resembles reality. Wilkus, while performing his task as delivery boy, investigates one Prawn’s home, and makes a discovery that changes both the trajectory of District 9‘s plot and the stability of our protagonist’s otherwise average life. For those poor souls that still want to go see this thing, I won’t spoil what happens; instead, just know that this particular development shifts the film thematically, steering it away from its vague promise as a social commentary toward a more traditional and largely derivative action movie framework.

Its director does, however, stay committed to sci-fi tropes, referencing a half dozen of the genre’s true classics (The Fly, primarily, and there’s a nod to E.T. as well), but never managing to carve out a unique identity of his own. Those claiming District 9 to be a classic itself are either just desperate for a work of quality from this genre or they’re missing the insulting and conflicting nature of the values presented here. Blomkamp feeds us a finger-wagging do-unto-others lecture and then hopes we eat up his on-screen violence just thirty minutes later. In trying to present both a critique of the injustice with which we treat those different from us (the proverbial “other”), and at the same time trying to satisfy the frothing bloodlust of American audiences with nihilistic brutality meant as entertainment, Blomkamp discredits his film under the banners of both intelligent cinema and escapist popcorn fluff. District 9 is more manipulative in its construction than almost any film this year, aiming for liberal sympathy with force in its opening, then catering to the gore hounds for the majority of its runtime with sickening gratuity, and finally working hard to pull the heart-strings with a ludicrous development of inter-species camaraderie in the third act, a relationship that feels not only entirely unearned, but explicit in its bid to overshadow the aforementioned nihilism of the picture. By measure of critical and audience approval, this tact worked.

Even giving Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and just assuming his vision is muddled, not calculated, he still crafts scenes that display flagrant indecency without purposeful commentary, and whether this was intended or not means little. It’s particularly telling that in a movie all about racial acceptance this director stoops to creating ethnic caricatures. There’s something of a subplot in District 9 involving Nigerians bartering with the Prawns, trading cans of cat food (again, seriously) for advanced alien weaponry. And like so many depictions of Africa’s people, the Nigerians here are rendered to be the equivalent of comic-book villains, grinning and evil practitioners of voodoo and other barbary, complete with eyes abulge. Like the recurring central villain of the film — a tough-talking military general who kills for fun — the natives are cartoonishly one-dimensional, another sign of Blomkamp’s inept perception of social commentary. Most distressing is the cruelty with which Blomkamp treats his protagonist, subjecting him to a series of sadistic psychological tortures. Wilkus is experimented on by government scientists who don’t even bother to give him a sedative as they talk casually about selling his body parts to different countries; and to further the shock and exploitation, the sequence is shot largely with close-ups of Wilkus’ terrified face, in effort to absorb every moment of horror in much the same way Eli Roth and James Wa choose to shoot their torture victims in the equally vile installments of the Hostel and Saw franchises, (ir)respectively. The employment of the close-up here should be seen as an aesthetic crutch, excusing Blomkamp from the hassle of composing a scene in any sort of artful way. This approach isn’t new; the “shaky-cam” style saw application in mainstream cinema as early as 1999, in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s landmark pseudo-found-footage film The Blair Witch Project, and was used to great effect in last year’s similar and very underrated J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves. The difference is that many filmmakers, including Abrams and Reeves and also John Erick Dowdle with his horror remake Quarantine, commit to their style, limiting the scope of their films in effort to experience the story from the perspective of an individual. It’s a gimmick, sure, but its application can create a visceral and unique experience that validates the relative disregard for traditional cinematic form. Every woozy sway and skewed angle in Cloverfield serves to create tension, the filmmakers’ jerky movement acting as a form of choreography and in effect substituting for traditional composition. In contrast, Blomkamp neither commits to his stylistic device nor uses it for any particular reason. His narrative is otherwise totally conventional, and the pacing of the film doesn’t differ from the typical Hollywood formula.

Cloverfield is a good film to compare District 9 to because it’s just as analogous. Though many people, bafflingly, don’t seem to catch the meaning of Abrams and Reeves’ film, it should be impossible for any American to watch Cloverfield (shot at the eye-level perspective of a man on the ground, through his digital video camera) and see people running terrified through the streets of New York City from an enveloping cloud of debris, without thinking of 9/11. We’ve all seen that footage, and the filmmakers (refreshingly) trusted their audience to detect the link between the chaos created in their film and that during the Twin Towers’ collapse. Abrams and Reeves largely succeeded at capturing a sense of overwhelming panic, and more specifically, at constructing a disaster in which the overriding feeling is very familiar: NYC is being attacked by something it doesn’t understand. The connection between Cloverfield and 9/11 is never explicitly announced within the film, but it’s there for anyone with enough imagination to connect the dots between a monster attacking the city and people we’ve come to dub as “monsters” who attacked the same city. And it’s both the perspective and chosen cinematic form in Cloverfield that make the film’s connection between its fantasy and its historical context all the more prevalent. Blomkamp, on the other-hand, says nothing in District 9 through the use of his hand-held camera, and instead chooses to communicate his ideology through that extended opening sequence; a collage of synthetic news footage which begins to seem like less the film’s innovative strength and more its cross to bear: leaden exposition establishing a level of political and social relevance the film seems fully incapable of living up to, and eventually contradicts. And that’s really District 9‘s big problem: it passes a hint of righteous ambition off as an intelligent discourse, and most of you seem to have bought it.