Thursday, September 24

Considering “District 9”

If there was any buzz for the Peter Jackson-produced District 9 this summer, I missed it. Nary a poster in a lobby nor a TV spot did I see. I did, however, see the trailer before some other blockbuster earlier that year, Star Trek maybe, and that was enough. It was mind blowing. It opens up in documentary style, people responding rather negatively to the arrival of a new population in town. The language is clearly that of racists, and you expect the slum to just explode into a riot worthy of Rodney King. But then a black, rocking back and forth, says that he just doesn't trust them, and it begins to throw you for a loop. The loop then disintegrates into a kindergartner's frantic experiment with a new marker when the next scene is the interrogation of something not altogether unlike a Wookie-sized crayfish. Freaking wow. Did not see that coming. So, when I saw that District 9 was playing in Nairobi while visiting three weeks back, I did not hesitate in advocating for our attendance of it. It was our morning time kill between checking out of the hotel and taking the bus to the airport and picking up the center's latest international volunteer.

The very beginning of the movie keeps up all of the energy of this brilliant set up, from the introduction of our hapless hero Wickus as he struggles with his clip-on mic to the department's entrance into District 9 to deliver eviction notices. The documentary style, closely adhered for the first act, may seem like a cheap way to easily fill in background information, but it's appropriate. Until the plot takes a swift turn for the cinematic during the evictions, the point is that this is not unusual. The clear ignorance of those assigned to deal with the foreign population and the casual brutality of their police escorts alone are nothing worth making a movie about. They are more facts than stories and deserve a different sort of presentation.

Then there is a cut to some aliens searching for something and vague allusions to a plan. One of them dies to protect the plan, Wickus receives a face full of mysterious black fluid and we no longer have a documentary but a full-fledged horror film. Wickus' body begins to fall apart, and we don't know why. He pulls off fingernails, and teeth aren't far behind. When he finally is taken to a hospital, he is pulled out within hours by shock troops in black suits. Awake in a secret lab, he is subjected to a battery of medical tests and prepared for dissection, only barely escaping with his life, though that is not guaranteed with the government running alerts on his escape and the military actively searching for him. This is good stuff. The paranoia, the sense of hopelessness as Wickus is forced to pull the trigger one more, the terror of his accelerating condition, they are never more acute or powerful.

Then it all falls apart. I can locate the precise moment. At the beginning of a mission back into the lab to retrieve what remains of the black fluid, Wickus splatters one of the guards against the far wall. When his alien partner demands to know why when Wickus had earlier ordered that no one was to be harmed, his response? “He shot me!” From here on out, it's just another action movie. That's a little unfair. It still has some brilliant segments, especially the final confrontation in District 9 as the advantage constantly shifts between Wickus, the aliens, the government and an absolutely insane Nigerian gang, but it's certainly not what I was hoping for from such a brilliant premise of turning the arrival of aliens on Earth not into some fantastic war or opportunity for growth but into their transfer into slums. Rather than go for the exceptional, it opts for cannibalism and human bodies that explode into a fine red mist.

A lot of the critical response I have seen has focused on how District 9 is this great throwback to science fiction as political allegory and bringing a little thematic dignity back to the genre. Seeing as how the movie is set entirely within and around Johannesburg, I can see how apartheid is the obvious target, but did anyone else feel the allegory was more appropriate for homosexuality and coming out of the closet? An apparently all-male species that easily indulges in cross dressing? An entirely emasculated man becoming closer to the aliens only after a lot of self hatred? A wife so distant in the background that the machine-o'-death has more screen time than her? Just saying this deserves some greater thought by someone on Metaphilm.

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