Monday, September 7, 2009

*District 9* Review

District 9 aims to be IMPORTANT, while wearing the skin of science fiction. Hey, it's about Apartheid...sorta! Look at how it exposes the utter villainy of humanity! Wallow in the victimhood of the film's insectoid aliens! The soundtrack even features dramatic choral music!


Having read many glowing reviews beforehand, my initial response to District 9 wasn't just disappointment, but the feeling that I had been seriously misled. Afterward, as I thought further, I became confounded by how so many critics could have loved the film. Even the handful of negative reviews only focused on how the film's (admittedly) original premise quickly cedes to run-of-the-mill action movie tropes. Yes, that's true. But, it's like observing how ill-fitting a couture dress is on a gorilla. It completely misses the point.

District 9 is fundamentally driven by a profound hatred for humanity. The ostensible villain is the bogeyman that keeps on giving, a multinational corporation (with the startlingly original name...Multinational United). Ultimately, we're all implicated in the film's condemnation. Even our hero, a Richard Kimble with an alien arm, is unsympathetic through most of the movie. When he does, obligatorily, begin to "do the right thing," fifteen minutes before the movie ends, the filmmakers don't let us in on what motivates the sudden about-face. Meanwhile, the aliens are merely grotesque surrogates for every subjugated people in history; they're there to be helplessly tyrannized. We're supposed to feel hatred and anger for the humans who do this to them, but, somehow, not for the humans who made this ugly movie?

District 9's many plot holes could comfortably accommodate the aliens' mothership, which hangs suspended over Johannesburg through most of the movie. Why didn't the main alien, Christopher Johnson, use the goop that powers his spaceship to escape earlier? (In case you don't make the connection to African slavery yourself, the film's earthlings give the aliens white-man names.) The film implies that he hadn't yet gathered enough, but the supply is sufficient for the job later on, even after our hero accidentally sprays himself in the face with a significant amount of it. Further, we are asked to believe the aliens, who were somehow able to create this advanced technology, which the baddies so rapaciously seek to covet, are, for the most part, mindless brutes. Only Christopher and his bafflingly precocious child show evidence of intelligence. And then there's the "superior" alien technology itself, which can barely hold up against the boring human gunfire that destroys it throughout the movie. Why do the mean humans want this stuff in the first place?

There are many more inconsistencies, but to recount them only hurts my head. Good science fiction is allowed, no supposed, to present the extraordinary and unlikely as mundane, as long as it follows its own rules. It must adhere to an internal logic. In that regard, District 9 is a mess.

But, what is so offensive about the film, and what the critics so heartily lapped up, is the film's pretense at being an insightful parable about humanity. What do we learn, by the end of the movie? Humans are nasty, violent creatures, who seek to dominate disgusting, mindless creatures. I think the filmmakers were too effective; District 9 achieves the opposite of their intent. You don't leave the theater thinking humanity is rotten. That evaluation is reserved for those responsible for this film.