Saturday, September 05, 2009

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)


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


Anonymous said...

Now that you reminded me about Buckaroo Banzai, why was there a watermelon in the lab when they were chasing those aliens?
(for some reason I can't use my google account to comment. bother.)

Noel Vera said...


No watermelon in District 9, either, more's the pity.

jayclops said...

I enjoyed it a lot. I dunno why I was the only one who laughed on the "interspecies prostitution" part. It was so loud, I embarrassed myself. I also liked a bit about the trading part, where the prawns exchange for catfood their weapons, to the folly of the renegades. The docu-reality part was a bit confusing; the only indication I think was the barely visible logo of the "MNU". I agree immensely on Copley as Wikus; he's like the life of this story. He should get some attention on the acting part, I think the character was kind of hard to portray, with the mix of eccentricities, sentimentality and all.

Sting Lacson said...

Well, it is a parable. The story itself is timeless in essence.

And frankly I had no problem with the shifts in perspective. I just suspended my disbelief. Hehe.

Noel Vera said...

The docudrama part is what sets it apart from stuff like Cloverfield and Independence Day and puts it closer to stuff like Borat; that's why I thought it was interesting. When the satire died down, then it was a standard-issue bug hunt.

Point of view the filmmaker ignores at his peril. It's not as if 'this is science fiction, so what with point of view?' Philip K. Dick was a master of the shifting point of view, and what made him so unique was that his sense of reality was slippery and impossible to pin down, yet the characters who suffer through them are absolutely real, like people you'd meet in the street. That's great storytelling, this is just fitfully amusing entertainment.

DKL said...

There's a part in the movie where Wikus heroically tells Christopher to go on without him and I actually started laughing in the theater (but, no one could hear me over all the explosions, probably)...

Essentially, the movie turned into Blood Diamond, but with aliens.

(that being said, I remember being a lot more pleased with Edward Zwick's action staging in said movie... but it's been a while, so I might need to see it again, but I do distinctly remember that the part where DiCaprio got shot actually made sense)

That being said, I had a lot of problems with this, among them being the switching around with the narrative (from documentary to movie); I think one of the vague indicators as to when the movie was in "documnetary mode" was when there would be this watermark over the screen, indicating that it's stuff being caught on footage.

Still, the jumping around was kinda haphazard and not used as well as it could've been: for example, when we escape the confines of the "documentary universe", there's barely ANY insight into the prawns; our perspective of the prawns (which isn't the right word we should be using considering the message that the movie is trying to hammer in, I guess) is voyeuristic, at best.

I mean, how many on-screen interviews did we have with the prawns in the movie? How really submerged were we into their daily lives other than facts that were fed to us by a HUMAN perspective?

Where is the PRAWN perspective?

(there's Christopher and his kid, but it still feels kinda thin considering how large the actual population is... for the most part, all the prawns seem kinda homogenous... you know, even NieA_7 [TV anime series directed by Takuya Sato] proposed the idea of factionalization WITHIN the alien race via a caste system)

I was under the impression that good documentaries actually sat down with the victimized populations it talks about (though, the lack of documentary coverage on the prawns may be part of the point, but then this again brings up the issue of when the movie does escape the confines of the documentary universe, why not use it to tell us more about these abused prawns?).

Here, it feels like an animal planet special or something; doesn't exactly get the prawns out of the roles of "nameless victims".

Why should I care about these prawns like I would a human? The movie only proposes a vague sense of "humanity" in the prawns.

Also, the passiveness of the prawns is rather distressing given the hints of their power superiority over humans.

(no, seriously... they seem to have access to all these amazing weapons, but they never used them to fight back... like, the biggest conceit of the movie is that the first prawn to actually fight back on a large scale is... a human turned into a prawn)

That being said, yeah... I do wish this was more like Borat and satirical or something, but they had to have all these other things and explosions and whatever most likely because... I dunno...

Maybe people wouldn't watch it if there wasn't any action and explosions.

That being said, have you seen Michael Mann's new movie yet?

I thought it was really good.

Noel Vera said...

Hello, DKL, was wondering where you went. The Pinoyexchange scene seems dead, apparently.

Blood Diamond among others uses this classic storyline, of outsiders coming into a troubled community and being our eyes and ears, not to mention our heroic surrogates, mainly because they're white and human like us (Christopher is portrayed as sympathetic, the heroic minority with not a lot of humor, or teeth to his characterization). Blood is probably my favorite of Zwick's films, mainly for the subject than for the film itself.

Point of view shifts from doc to drama as indicated by the time code or whatever that was, sure, but my question is WHY does it shift? A doc would never do it that way--would at most mark certain scenes as 'dramatic reenactment;' either use the doc as an intro and go straight into regular storytelling or leave it out altogether. Otherwise people--well I do--ask: from whose point of view is this story being told?
I submit that if you just shift from one POV to another, that's lazy storytelling.

DKL said...

Oh, I've always been following your blog, but have not posted until now.

Anyway, yeah, long time no see.

jav said...

i think district 9 is very post modern with its treatment, the mixing of genres and flow. i really think that it worked.

and we dont always have to give away facts or situations. like, why the aliens are there, etc. some things are better if they're not told. it keeps your imagination working. that's why you leave the theater wanting more

Wow Gold said...
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Wow Gold said...
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Noel Vera said...

I'm not the biggest fan in the world of po-mo storytelling, but I like some practitioners--Rico Ilarde comes to mind.

It's just that I think those first twenty minutes set up expectations, that we're going to see savage social satire done girtty, done hilarious, and it turned into a standard-issue bug hunt. Disappointing, in my book.