It took until the doldrums of the late-August dumping grounds for the best movie of the summer, if not the year--made for a paltry $30 million and starring zero-name to non-professional South African actors--to creep in under the radar and absolutely embarrass/destroy the bloated glut of thoughtless, joyless, CGI chumsicles currently clogging the multiplexes. Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience may have been the smartest movie I've seen this year, but Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is definitely the most fun. However, this does not imply that amidst the glorious, instantaneous splatter produced by alien hardware shooting rich arcs of electricity at Nigerian voodoo gangs and corporate death squads, that the film is merely a spectacle or a good time. Far from it, Blomkamp has created a movie that manages to be a more genuinely moving and dare I say, compassionate take on the process of dehumanization than dozens of other more serious films. District 9 is a film about man's inhumanity to man, but like the best horror/sci-fi it simply substitutes the new flesh of the zombie, cyborg, or alien for a situation or socio-political dynamic common to our species that already exists all-over our lonely, fractured planet.
By now I'm sure we're all familiar with the plot details: thirty years ago a massive alien monolith/mothership appears over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Coming neither in peace nor for conquest, the floating city merely hovers ominously in mid-air, and here Blomkamp references the sci-fi canon to great effect, peppering the film with sly quotes from other classics. The mothership brings to mind the city-destroying saucers of Independence Day and V, but this city above a city is not the director winking at his fellow geeks, but rather the conscious referencing of the common sci-fi trope, that a more technologically advanced civilization is always to be feared. After all, throughout our own history, those civilizations that were able to master guns, germs, and steel invariably dominated and enslaved those that hadn't. The arrival of the first, fully-armored conquistador on horseback was almost surely as alien, and not to mention apocalyptic, to the Aztec empire as any flying saucer would be to our own society. However, when us humans finally decide to pop open this massive tin can in the sky, what they find is not an onslaught of overpowering alien marauders, but rather a scene more reminiscent of the liberation of Dachau or Auschwitz, as they find a million or so hideous and emaciated life-forms living in their own filth. The film is a disturbing take on the shop-worn line, "take us to your leaders." Indeed we do, and what they decide is to cram them into a massive concentration camp.
The aliens, referred throughout the film by the Kaffir-like slur of "Prawns", adapt to life in "District 9" living in shacks, sifting through garbage, eating the occasional hog-head, and developing a junkie like addiction to cat food. Their grotesque appearance--a slender, lanky crustacean-cockroach hybrid--and utterly degraded state of existence test the limits of our empathy towards a form of life so well, alien. We hear many of the same things about the Prawns as we do about so many other troubling groups of people or "others" scraping the bottom of the social barrel: they breed out of control, decent, normal people must pay for their welfare, they're violent, they're animals, child-like and most of all accustomed to a firm hand above reason or cooperation. Can't someone just do something about them? The Prawn, far from displacing the racial politics of contemporary South Africa, falls right into place at the basement of the hierarchy. A film less attuned to the reality of how oppression affects human beings would have had the impoverished South African blacks forming some kind of solidarity with their alien brothers, but District 9 has no such pretensions, instead showing that the arrival of the Prawn gives even the poorest, slum-dweller a whole new class of beings, below even them, to exploit for fun and profit.
For all its rich subtext and imagination, the success of District 9 is due in large part to the brilliant performance of Sharlto Copley--in his first film--as Wikus Van De Merwe, our everyman protagonist. Wikus is a dweebish, office drone in the "Alien Affairs" dept of MNU--multinational united--a private corporation, and surprise, surprise, defense contractor that generously offers to take over the maintenance and security of District 9 from the beleaguered government. The opening scene, an improvised, documentary take of Wikus, accompanied by a merc army of execute-at-will sadists, "evicting" prawns from their hovels in preparation for their "evacuation" to a more secure facility is a chilling sequence, where Copley obscenely mugs for the camera as he pumps himself up and jokes about the squalid conditions that surround him, pretending to be an important and tough man. The whole thing vaguely reminded me of almost every Discovery or Nat Geo host I've ever seen. Copley manages to do the near impossible in a summer-film, which is basically undergo a completely genuine and affecting evolution (in this case a literal one) of character from a totally unsympathetic dork, as Eileen Jones at The Exiled points out, straight out of The Office: South Africa, to a tragic Seth Brundle figure, who loses a humanity it's not certain he even possessed to begin with. Even as circumstances force him into the role of the dreaded "other", Wikus is no more or less selfish--or human--as he was before. By the end and the film's poignant last frame, Wikus may have achieved a form of grace, but by and large no one has learned anything. The humans aren't any more compassionate and the prawns aren't anymore free, there is no real hope, save for that of escape from District Earth.
I don't normally seek to defend movies I consider worthy or important from critical wrong-think and thought-crime, but I just want to highlight something particularly galling that Eileen Jones pointed out in her review, and that would be the complaint of one of Slate.com's stable of "contrarian" flatworms. In short, critic Daniel Engber doesn't like District 9 because of it's "dull, anti-corporate politics." You see Engber is disturbed that corporations have been slandered by so many sci-fi films, which both in film and print, starting with Dick and running through Gibson among others, seem to be troubled by the anti-democratic, anti-human nature of the multi-national conglomerate. As Ms. Jones says, "why oh why, bright bulb Daniel Engber asks, are sci-fi films so tiresomely fixated on evil corporate overlords running our dystopian future? What could be behind this strange fixation? What could it be? What cooooouuuuld it beeeeeeeeee?" I mean, aliens are one thing, but who could believe a film where a corporation could be complicit in genocide or use a private army to murder, steal and lie at will?
This is pretty standard fare for Slate.com, as their M.O. is usually something like: "Feeling Hungry? Here's Why You're Not" that often involves staking out a position seemingly at odds with their upper-class liberal readership, that for some reason always seems to dovetail with the free-market/reactionary take on most social or economic issues, but I'll just link to these two items from just the past two weeks, and leave it at that.