Tuesday, September 01, 2009

District 9.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) (Bayers Lake) About 30 years ago, a massive alien spacecraft entered earth's atmosphere, passed over the great cities of Washington, Paris, and Rome, and came to rest above Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just hovered there, making no contact and showing no signs of life. As time passed, curiosity got the better of those living in its shadow, and a team was sent up to cut its way into the ship.

First Contact
First contact was not epiphanic nor even remotely uplifting - rather than the marvels of a more advanced civilization, those that entered the ship found a motley crew of dirty, malnourished, and thoroughly stranded arthropod-like aliens. A full-scale humanitarian mission ensued, ferrying the pathetic creatures to earth for resettlement and rehabilitation.

The aliens quickly wore out their welcome, as the people of Johannesburg increasingly resented the time and money that was being spent on the newcomers. Far from integrating into human society, the aliens were herded into District 9, which became a heavily-guarded slum rife with crime (such as an underground cat food market to complement a booming arms trade), gang violence, and prostitution.

District 9 picks up up at around this point, with the government having decided to adopt a policy of "out of sight, out of mind." MNU, the multi-national security company charged with policing alien affairs, is assigned the task of evicting the aliens - derogatorily referred to as prawns - and transporting them some 200 miles into the desert to a makeshift concentration camp.

Wilkus van de Merwe (Sharto Copely) is the hapless (read ignorant) middle manager tasked with overseeing the eviction, which quickly devolves into mayhem as heavily-armed, government-sponsored thugs break into the stinking, broken-down hovels and heap both insult and injury on the degraded inhabitants

Echoes of Reality
District 9 is presented as a pseudo-documentary, and is shot in a grainy, raw light that makes it feel very real - similar to The Hurt Locker, or footage you would see from Iraq or the Middle East on the evening news. Everything we view looks extremely real and, more to the point, plausible: the space ship is dirty and rust-streaked even in its hovering majesty; the aliens are individuals with children to care for and mundane real lives that are very apparent rather than merely sci-fi, special effects eye candy; and the MNU agents are (for the most part) bumbling bureaucrats with very human failings. This is not a slick, spit-and-polished movie with a patina of reality - it is gritty realism done right.

Ranging as it does from pseudo-documentary to gory-horror film, shoot-em-up action movie, and thinking man's sci-fi, the look and feel of District 9 is a great accomplishment in film making and a pleasure to behold - even if the short "gory-horror part" was a little more than I could handle.

This sense of realism is further heightened by - and indeed adds to - the eerie resonance of the aliens' milieu vis-a-vis South Africa's very real experience of apartheid, particularly when the fictional neighbourhood of District 9 is contrasted with historical reality of District 6, an inner-city area of Johannesburg that was forcibly cleared under apartheid.

District 9 opened in South Africa yesterday (August 31), and the viewers I heard interviewed on the radio this morning made much of this retelling of the history of apartheid and the all-to-present legacy of that system today - but those reports strike me as a little biased towards the feel-good marketing side of things.

Social Commentary or Rehashed Stereotypes?
I have no doubt the filmmakers were very aware of the correlations between the fictional world of District 9 and South Africa's history of racism and abuse. However, after viewing the film and discussing it with a few friends, I am not sure that this intention is more than skin deep.

There are three main reasons for this, the most glaring being the stereotypes that the filmmakers fall back on. The slum area of District 9 is not a post-apartheid collection of the disadvantaged segment of South Africa's population. Rather, it is an old-school ghetto inhabited by the near-feral aliens and black African arms dealers, pimps, and drug lords who prey on the newcomers. Now, true to the allegory that the makers claim to be presenting, the aliens move towards a light at the end of the tunnel, ending the film with a glimmer of hope. Not so their black cohabitants, who are a literal embodiment of the heart of darkness, not given even the most subtle hint of redemption.

Secondly, the glimmer of hope that the film ends with is not achieved by the aliens overcoming odds. Rather, it is handed to them by a white bureaucrat (Wilkus) who has seen the essential flaw in his character and taken the high road. No, in District 9 the possibility of dignity for the aliens is a gift from a white ruler, not a natural expression of the will to be free on the part of the oppressed.

Thirdly there is the arc of the story itself, which does, as I alluded to earlier, an incredible job of portraying everything from the spaceship to the aliens as very real rather than as fantasy. However, this tone, which is particularly suited to prompting introspection on the part of the audience, is severely undermined by the film's climax. By abandoning the reality augmented by the odd piece of alien technology that seems altogether feasible in favor of a no-holds-barred alien robot vs human heavy weaponry showdown (the shoot-em-up action sequence alluded to above), any semblance of this being a topical film is lost.

Worth a Visit to the Multiplex
I still recommend District 9 highly, especially - as I discussed above - for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the dystopian reality that the filmmakers have so artfully created. However, I do caution that you should not attend in hope of seeing the in-depth analysis of apartheid-era South Africa that the media has gleefully portrayed it as being. Watch, enjoy, cover your eyes at times - but mostly, discuss the issues I have raised above upon exiting the cinema. Even if the film subverts its supposed intention of educating and/or inspiring its audience, you can bring this analysis of the real world it echoes to the table yourself - that's what I would call responsible viewing.

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