Quote clever meets not-quite-satisfying
District 9 begins with a classic science-fiction premise. A flurry of documentary-style interviews and mock TV news footage recap the chaotic recent events: a giant alien ship appeared over South Africa, and after months of watching it hover silently, human soldiers cracked it open to see what was inside. They found a large number of malnourished, human-sized, insect-like aliens. The ailing creatures were moved en masse to a holding camp called District 9, which has, in the twenty years since, become a crime-ridden slum where black markets sell alien weaponry and underground dealers import large quantities of cat food. The aliens find canned fish delectable. They’re intelligent enough to speak a language and build space ships, but on earth the “prawns,” as the aliens are called derisively (they look like giant shrimp), have become a societal burden.
When our not-quite-lovable hero is finally alone with a friendly alien, you’d think he’d have a load of questions. “Hey, where are you from? Why are you here? Why South Africa? If you just need to get back to your (still hovering) ship so you can fly away, why didn’t you do that earlier, when you were still on the ship?” But our hero, like the film itself, is not the least bit interested in those questions once the wheels are set in motion. Instead he shouts, “Don’t fucking move! Don’t fucking move!” or inquiries to that effect. A few late-arriving changes of heart are unconvincing on all sides, and the film, which feels nearly complete at 85 minutes, lacking only a smart capper, continues for another brain numbing half hour. On balance, it’s a decent action flick, at least as stimulating as the Terminator sequel that opened the summer, but it’s a film that might have been a modern science fiction classic if it had spent a little more time in the incubator.
That’s a fantastic idea for a thinking creature’s action film, but in its rush through the climax, District 9 favors loud blasts over logic. The two aren’t necessarily incompatible, but asking for both in District 9 is like asking the prawns and the humans to let bygones be bygones.
Unfortunately, it’s also clever meets not-quite-satisfying. For over an hour, District 9 is fueled by an explosion of creativity. It boldly gives us a lead character in Wikus who looks and sounds like a jovial Aussie office wonk but who also seems to be a raging racist. Or speciesist, I suppose. Acting on behalf of a multinational corporation that’s been tasked with controlling the aliens, he knocks on slum doors to tell the residents to move or be moved, shooting any who spook him from the rear. Later the film further complicates his situation in ways that harden but also confuse the way he feels about the aliens, and the way they feel toward him. We’re in Archie Bunker territory, here, except for all the oozing fluids and bullet-pierced exoskeletons. The film provocatively makes its aliens and their twitching mandibles excessively disgusting, more like Brundlefly than E.T., so that anyone who wants to side with these sentient creatures needs to have strong enough moral principals to overcome the gag reflex.
In a series of witty interviews with a human functionary named Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9 establishes some obvious but critical similarities to our own world—as good science fiction always does—from concentration camps and genocide on the extreme end to immigration, xenophobia, poverty, asymmetric warfare, and urban renewal on the softer side. The story weaves together enough familiar elements that reviewers sound like they’re playing a parlor game when they try to describe it: it’s The Office meets Alien Nation. It’s The Fly meets V. It’s City of God meets The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Watch the District 9 trailer: