District 9 is one of the most intelligent sci-fi films in a long time. It’s parallels to the modern world are astounding. The effects and CGI are incredible. I never once thought that the aliens in the film did not actually exist. And the newcomer Sharlto Copley gives an incredible performance as a man who finds his world being changed by the aliens.
So why did I leave with the feeling that there was still something missing?
District 9, as many probably know from the ad campaign, is about a slum (reminiscent of the “City of God” in the film of the same title) where insect like aliens have been living for 20 years. They came to rest over Johannesburg, half dead in their titanic mother ship. The aliens are hated by the population and there is a desire to move them far outside of the city. The man put in charge of overseeing this mass evacuation is Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley) who finds an alien canister that slowly morphs his body into an alien body. The company he works for tries to use this metamorphosis to their advantage by using Wikus to test alien weapons. Wikus escapes and is forced to hide in District 9, where he becomes involved in a plan to help the aliens finally go home.
With that description, many can possible guess. Is it the documentary style? Many have and many more will comment on the pseudo-documentary style of the film. Some will worry that it is gimmicky, but that is never actually the case. In fact, it almost feels necessary to tell the story in this way. After all, humanity has already seen this story played with apartheid. It helps with the suspension of disbelief. Besides, this is not the predominant way the story is told. The filmmakers have found the perfect balance between traditional story telling and the documentary style.
And the CGI is incredible in this film. I have already complained about the predominant use of CGI in films. But this never was the case. The main alien (named Christopher Johnson) has as much of a personality as any of the human characters. I would normally recommend such a performance for an Oscar nomination. But it is hard to give such a prize to a collection of ones and zeroes. But that just shows the strength of Peter Jackson’s wonderful use of special effects. And the film cost 30 million dollars to make. Why is it that it took thirty million to create this beautiful world but one hundred million dollars to make the typical, garish blockbuster? It is more of a testament to Neil Blomkamp. This man, for even dreaming to be economical in Hollywood, is going places. You mark my words.
And what of Sharlto Copley? His performance is exactly what the character needed. He plays a wormy bureaucrat who barely pauses to think about the morality of his actions. An early scene involves MNU burning down a nest of eggs. He takes time to point out how the burning eggs “sound like popcorn.” Never once does he flinch about the implications of aborting alien spawn. He tries to act like the alien’s friends, but merely uses legalese with a pleasant tone in an attempt to get his way. When he is forced to go crawling back to them, we see a broken man. Still though, he reverts to his previous ideals when the situation calls for it. (“this is completely illegal” he exclaims to his benefactor in District 9.)
So, what is it? It is the Cronenbergian body horror segments with Wikus. Toward the end of the film, this becomes an afterthought. Imagine if your body was slowly turning into an alien body. It would cause anyone to have a nervous break down. Wikus has a few of those. But it never ascends to the level that the filmmaker’s want. Wikus does cry, he is afraid of what is happening. So, credit still goes Copley. But after only a few hours, he seems resigned to what is happening.
This bizarre reaction is what really holds the film back. I really only point this out because of the relentless hype that has surrounded the film. Some people have compared it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, few filmmakers can ever reach that goal. But the simple fact is that the film seems to want to be as good. And it’s not. 2001 was about what it meant to be human. It explored the furthest reaches of human imagination. District 9 does not do this.
So, does this destroy District 9. Absolutely not. This actually is a great film to discuss what makes a great film. It has all of the makings of a great film. But what does it need to become a great film? I think what it ultimately needed was to change its view of humanity. A man who becomes an alien needs to be addressed. As it is now, the film seems afraid to swim and is content to let its feet rest in the pool. I much prefer (as do many others) when films dive in. That’s what makes a great film.
But as much as I have focused on that, there is still much to admire. Number two in the box office is G.I. Joe. For even treating its audiences like they are smart, District 9 deserves great praise. I cannot do do anything but admire a film for doing that. And perhaps I am just nitpicking more than I should. Let me phrase it another way. I usually do not use stars, but I think now that it would be necessary to do so. This film gets three and a half stars. It is not perfect. But it is still an incredible achievement for a summer blockbuster.