'District 9' Imperfect, but Mostly Thrilling
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Bad science fiction is about ray guns and rocket ships. Good science fiction is about little things (a turn of the head, a single changed fact, a pause in the laws of physics) and what happens to people in the different light of those little changes. Good science fiction can have ray guns and rocket ships, to be sure, but it's more about the ideas and the people around those props and places. Director Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" is a great example of how fresh science fiction can be when it's not just handed over to the special effects team and then the marketing division. And while "District 9" is far from perfect, every frame in it drips with ambition, energy and vision. Sure, that gets a little messy, but the minor problems the film has are more than outweighed by the gripping, gritty clench of how it grabs for your attention and hangs onto it white-knuckled and fierce.
Set in a parallel present, "District 9" begins with mock-documentary footage explaining how, 20 years ago, a huge spacecraft came to rest in the skies over Johannesburg. As an academic explains over the archival footage of the ship being boarded by humanity, "We expected ... I don't know ... music from heaven and bright shining lights." Instead, what was inside the hold was more than a million huge, insectoid aliens living in squalor, workers crashed on an unwelcoming shore. Now, after two decades, the District 9 slum has to be moved, and a government-corporate coalition is evicting the "prawns" to new quarters 200 kilometers away. Sweater-vest wearing bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the smiling, hand-shaking side of the process, but there are plenty of guns and guts to back the effort up. Wikus goes into the alien slums of District 9 and comes out a changed man. Or, more accurately, changed from a man.
In the press notes for "District 9," the following bit of denial rings out loud and clear: "The filmmakers say that though it's impossible to divorce the film from its setting, no direct metaphor is intended." This is, of course, nonsense; even the title's a clear allusion to Cape Town's District 6, where 60,000 African residents were forcibly displaced in the 1970s. And when the aliens riot, it's hard not to flash back to similar footage from the struggle against apartheid. But there's very little medicine in "District 9," and plenty of action, suspense and weird comedy as sugar that shows the influence of producer Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings," "Dead Alive"), so that while you could go to "District 9" and think, you don't necessarily have to. Yes, "District 9" is a fairly blunt metaphor. Then again, considering how few movies actually talk about race, class and power, I'll take simple, shouted metaphors over mealymouthed, simpering silence any day.
I'm not quite as high on "District 9" as some of its backers, but the film's minor flaws, while real, can't mar Blomkamp's achievement. The mock-doc device is dropped and picked back up a little capriciously. Copley's transition from ineffectual paper-pusher to one-man army is slightly suspect, even with alien DNA Cronenberging him into a desperate, deformed more-and-less-than-human man on the run. The team-up between Wikus and an alien freedom fighter (Jason Cope) is straight out of "The Defiant Ones" and a hundred other reluctant-buddy films. The second act of the film stretches out a little bit too long. And yet, as "District 9" plays out as a sci-fi epic with stunning, weird effects and a bloody taste for the rough stuff, a hysterical mash-up of "City of God" and "E.T.," it's nearly impossible to not be dragged to the edge of your seat by Blomkamp's deceptively simple pitch as two decent people (one of whom isn't considered a person at all) do what they can against the tyranny of wicked men and the institutions of injustice. Most science fiction films are content to splash on your eyes and lazily poke at your adrenal glands. "District 9" has brilliant effects and great action, yes. But it also wants to worm into your head and heart. The fact it even tries to make you think, to make you feel, to actually matter is what makes it the surprise sleeper treat of summertime 2009.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.