District 9

District 9 (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
viewed: 08/14/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

The “stealth” movie of the summer, shot on location in Johannesburg, South Africa, starring a guy who was a friend of the director’s and promoted with some “on the sly” types of print ads that don’t really tell you much, District 9 is also the movie of the moment.  And Peter Jackson helped produce it.  The stealth is gone, the buzz is up, and the film is in theaters.  I’d read both good buzz and good reviews and wanted to see it before I became to aware of too much about the film.

So, beware a bit in reading this because I might tell you a bit more than you want to know about the story if you want to go see it.

The film’s premise is this: a huge spaceship appeared over Johannesberg 20 years ago.  When investigated, it was filled with a million half-starved lobster-like aliens (Hello, Dr. Zoidberg, I think you have a lawsuit on your claws!) who are taken in as “immigrants” to South Africa, but since they are not well-integrated, instead are housed up in a big slum in the center of the city.  They speak in clicks and tones but understand English and over the years have become the most denigrated species/people on the planet.  As the film begins, a 3rd party company has been brought in to move the “prawns” as they are known epithetically, to a new space outside the city, just another slum, but less visible.

The Apartheid metaphors are clear, and the film is shot with a mixture of hand-held camera, shot for television, filmed on security camera, as well as a general omniscient camera (which tends toward the hand-held as well, perhaps to help even out the visual tone), but is not as committed to the whole idea of a faux-documentary or “caught on tape” sort of approach, though there are many talking head interviews who help flesh out the story and the back-story.

It’s an entertaining film, which sort of evolves into a more traditional story of one character identifying and befriending another cross-species.  The villains are the multinational corporations who want to capitalize on alien weapons technology, far advanced and destructive, but only usable by the aliens themselves.  Of course, they’re willing to use and destroy anyone to get what they want.

There is a lot of mystery about the aliens, about why they were there in the first place.  And the film is left open with a clear path to sequel.  The themes about the quarrantining of the aliens, the abject poverty and the misunderstanding of cultural differences, exploited by criminals and criminalizing could be more heavy-handed but are blunted perhaps by the speed and complexity of the details.  It’s all very fast-moving.  You don’t really have time to dwell on any one aspect of the broader metaphor.  Is this a metaphorical perception of an outsider, though?  Of white South Africa post-Apartheid?  Does the metaphor ultimately hold water?

The one aspect of power beneath it is having filmed in the slums of Johannesberg.  The slums bear some of the verity of the story, shantytowns that are characteristics of poverty more pervassive and extreme than anything in the United States perhaps, something hard to imagine, but real.  But again, the oppression of the “prawns” seems kind of strange to such an extent.  It seems that over 20 years there would have been one or two that would have managed via scientific study or academic research of culture and language to have helped to “explain” more of their situation, help humans to understand the why of their being.

It’s not always a good idea to prod the surface of such thing as a plot point.  But if the film was going to have great power in examining a metaphor of racism, segregation, Apartheid-style cordoning of a “people” by the government, it has to at least have some depth to its narrative.

I don’t mean to pick it apart.  It’s a good film, with some surprising elements, some adventure, some fun.  And while a lot of people saw it over the weekend and a lot of people will see it in the coming weeks, it’s certainly a more interesting film than most of the other summer action fare.  And those weird South African accents, Dutch meets English sounding Welsh or Australian or…  Now that is an alien sound all its own.

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