Saturday, September 26, 2009

District 9

Dir. Neill Blomkamp

On an episode of the British comedy Spaced, Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) tells Daisy Steiner (Jessica Stevenson) in defense of science fiction that “the thoughts and speculations of our contemporary authors and thinkers have never been closer to the truth.” Quickly undermining this point is a scene of several children/midgets in shiny silver alien costumes outside a comic book store. Nevertheless, Bisley's point remains supremely valid. Science fiction has long been a medium where certain socio-political statements can be made because of the unreal realm in which they take place. In the 50s American science fiction worked as an anti-Soviet propaganda machine and since then has functioned to both critique and commend society. Working inside the super natural framework of the genre there is a sense of leniency that is unavailable to other modes of film making. Where a political documentary film maker can level accusations against the government that instantly become controversial, a post-apocalyptic vision of the future where human beings subject a body of nomadic, homesick aliens to ghastly persecution can slip under the radar as an inter-galactic and imaginative thriller. Even at their most ludicrously transparent sci-fi films making or attempting to make statements about the nature of humanity and its susceptibility to corruption struggle to cause the same uncomfortable tremor that realist fiction or documentary make. District 9, the debut feature film of director Neill Blomkamp, is aware of the limitations and possibilities of its genre. Despite the by-now-well-defined boundaries the film works within, it finds an impressive balance between the awe inspiring spectacle that viewers expect from sci-fi and the engaging landscape of insinuative metaphor that goes on beneath it.

Taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa District 9 at first begs to be seen as an anti-apartheid film. This is certainly the most basic reading of the film's narrative. An oppressive private military contracting company (MNU) is put in charge of controlling a body of 1.8 million aliens who are forced to land due to their malfunctioning ship. The film's cinéma vérité style allows for a number of “experts” to give their initial impressions on the ship's landing, the discovery of the arthropod-like creatures that were found inside and the ensuing, indelicate scramble of relocating them to an internment camp within city limits. Intercut between these interviews and the film's well paced storyline is sequences of television broadcasts which greatly assist the serious realism the director is aiming for while still maintaining a plot that exists only in the sphere of speculation or fantasy, depending on the candor of your imagination.

District 9 exists to illuminate the potential Pandora's Box that could be opened if/when an unforeseen event of incomparable magnitude occurs. It is a strong criticism not only of the xenophobia and social inequality prevalent not just in South Africa but all over the world, but also the greedy administrators who calm the public conscience into believing that such deplorable acts as those historically seen and cinematically witnessed in District 9 are not only acceptable but morally correct. Despite apartheid, the Holocaust, genocide and all other forms of mass, ritual murder District 9 makes a convincing case that rather than learn from these horrendous atrocities, we as a species have only blinded ourselves from the suffering of others. The arthropod “Prawns”, as they are derogatorily named, function as the physical representation of the dehumanized subject. Throughout the film they are thoughtlessly slaughtered, disdainfully banned from public places, and abominably abused.

While the film insinuates much about our growth, or lack thereof, as a species my biggest complaint is that after an exciting 20 minute faux-historical introduction, the film by and large surrenders to its own appetite for violence. The brute force with which the soldiers harass the Prawns into complying with their forced eviction escalates into the explosive recovery of the black liquid from MNU headquarters by humanoid Wikus van de Merwe, the film's zealous and slightly idiotic protagonist, and Christopher Johnson, the intelligent and perceptive Prawn attempting to rescue his people from persecution, climaxing with an all out invasion of District 9 by military forces to recover Wikus, who combats the army from within a Mecha-like fighting suit capable not only of stopping bullets with magnetism but rockets with its bare metallic claws. See what I mean? What was once a sociological study has devolved into a substantial melee.

To his credit, Blomkamp's violence is spectacular, well arranged and infinitely exciting. However at times it nearly overpowers the emotional core of the film, whose powerful message is about humanely embracing life and not attempting to control it. It has all the overtones of oppressed populations everywhere; the desperate cries for help; the pleads for equality. The film concludes on a morally speculative note with the fate of Prawns and humans left up to Christopher Johnson as he soars off toward his home planet. The film's external monologue begs the question: what will he do if/when he returns? Rescue his fellow Prawns? Wage war on humans? Make peace between the disparate races? It is here that focal point of the entire film is revealed, drawing the curtains away from the physical story in order to reveal the ethical narrative that has been coursing beneath the surface throughout. District 9 achieves intellectual and visceral weight by encouraging the viewer to consider all sides of the dilemma. It is a stimulating and thought inspiring film, proving once again the underrated abilities of science fiction.

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