. Prawn salad
The mix of genres that is Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (2009) is, I would argue, more monstrous than anything you see in the movie itself--imagine a military action thriller that mixes in huge flying saucers, hideous genetic experiments, various alien body parts, racism, crushing poverty, political satire; the resulting lurching, stitched-together, patchworked Frankenstein of a creation would be close to what I'm talking about, only probably not as haphazard.
The premise pretty much comes from Graham Barker's Alien Nation (1988). A race of extraterrestrials arrives and instead of invading or enslaving us, they live with us as refugees, to the point that we have granted them their own racist nickname ("prawns," thanks to their exoskeletons, a repulsive cross between lobster and cockroach), their own trash-choked ghettos (the eponymous district), their own unique vices and crimes (cat-food addiction; alien johns serviced by human prostitutes; the odd alien killed for its meat). Blomkamp develops this elaborate metaphor for apartheid and social-class struggle with inventive flair, filming everything in a documentary style reminiscent of Matt Reeves' Cloverfield (2008).
The picture is a hundred and twelve minute expansion of Blomkamp's six-minute short Alive in Joburg (2005). That short video was a perfect distillation of news commentary and interviews painting a world where alien (as opposed to black, or Latino, or poor) lower classes simmer resentfully against an oppressively fascist apartheid government. This longer version doesn't have that seamlessness, unfortunately; bits of faux news are mixed in with scenes where aliens congregate and conspire (and a news camera can't possibly have access). The ostensible hero Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) conducts an informal reality-show tour of the district's more lurid sights until he is infected by some mysterious black liquid, and the camera for some unexplained reason starts following his return home (where, again, a news camera can't possibly have access).
Unmotivated shifts in point-of-view often bother me; Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's Blair Witch Project (1999) famously pretended to be a series of film reels and videotapes that reveal the fate of a film crew vanished into a Maryland forest years ago, in search of the Blair Witch--but who cut film and video footage together? Who laid on the barely ominous hum in the soundtrack? Same problem with Cloverfield, though there is an attempt to preserve the unity of time and space, at the expense of plausibility (would a cameraman be so determined to point his camera at the right direction at the right time, all the time, even at the possible cost of his life?). At least George Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007) squares everything neatly away with a scene where the filmmaker actually sits down and edits his material--brilliant!
No such luck here. Blomkamp mixes documentary and straightforward narrative with reckless abandon, and at times you're not sure which mode the movie's on. Consistency and clarity aren't one of the picture's strengths--we aren't sure, for example, if the prawns are strong enough to tear a man in two, or weak enough that a single man can drag it out of a shack; we aren't sure just what kind of organization is in charge (seems to be a mish-mash of Afrikaner law enforcement and United Nations peacekeeping). We're not sure why the aliens landed, why they're trapped here on Earth, and what the heck that mysterious 'fluid' is--if it's spaceship fuel, why does it have the gene-splicing abilities of Seth Brundle's teleporter? Why did the command ship lose all its fuel? Why did the prawns take so long--years--to gather enough of the fuel for the ship to get moving again? And why does Christopher (arguably the smartest prawn on the planet) suddenly change his mind and take three years to do something important for Wikus that should take only three minutes (I presume)?
It's a salad, a poorly mixed one, at that, but there are ideas and some power to this movie. The scenes of prawns kneeling on the ground, automatic rifles to their heads, is an unsettling image; the piles of garbage and fly-covered meat carcasses make you want to scrub yourself with steel wool and lye before leaving the theater. The anti-apartheid message, filtered through the conventions of the alien-occupation genre, gains freshness and bite.
Easily the best thing about the movie is its nebbishy protagonist, Wikus. Wikus as Copley plays him is a charmless, spineless hero, appointed through nepotism to head the operation to move all prawns to nearby District 10 (apparently based on similar operations to move blacks from Johannesburg to Soweto in the '50s). He's hilariously clueless, knocking on ramshackle doors as if he were visiting royalty (or some reality show host); politely enquiring if a prawn is willing to sign away hearth and home; relentlessly putting a cheerful face on anything and everything on-camera, from beatings and scenes of harassment to cold-blooded murder. This is Larry Charles' Borat (2006) meets Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987) meets Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), and it's brilliant black comedy; one wishes Blomkamp had kept up this level of satire, allowed Wikus to keep his smarmy, ingratiating chatterbox personality till the end.
Alas, about the time Wikus is infected with the deadly space fuel the picture deflates into a weepy, self-important shoot-em-up that depicts Christopher as the noble oppressed alien and Wikus as the noble Earthman oppressor turned liberator. Borat is gone, to be replaced by serious (and rather dull) acting, and some equally serious (and also rather dull) alien ordnance. Did Blomkamp feel solemnity would be necessary to be taken seriously? Or did Blomkamp (who showed creative genre flexibility so far) feel he could only operate on one emotional tone at a time? Why couldn't Wikus be every bit as smarmy shooting up Afrikaner soldiers as he was knocking on prawn doors? Why can't he be Borat and Rambo at the same time?
Far as integrated alien pictures go, District 9 is more entertaining than, say, Alien Nation (it's not a large genre), though not as witty and imaginative as W.D. Richter's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984); far as alien-earthling buddy pictures go, it's more respectable than Wolfgang Petersen's Enemy Mine (1985), though the featured alien-human friendship is certainly not as deeply felt as that of Spock and Kirk in the Star Trek series, or of The Doctor and his companions in the classic and recent Dr. Who episodes. Not bad, could be a lot better.
First published in Businessworld, 8.28.09