District 9 is insatiable.
Which is to say that director Neill Blomkamp clearly wants everything: the political and the personal, the head and the heart, the laughs, thrills, tears, and squicks. Frequently, Blomkamp grasps what he reaches for. In the span of two hours, we get a walking tour of alien apartheid, a Kafka-esque personal transformation, one stupendously cool walking war machine, and a collection of weapons ripped straight from the dreams of the world’s most bloodthirsty gamers. District 9 is relatively thoughtful and beautiful to behold; it is certainly more thrilling than any recent action film.
Still, there’s much to be desired.
The premise is brutally simple. A massive alien mothership arrives in the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, but its inhabitants make no effort to initiate dialogue. Confused, impatient humanity flies up to meet the newcomers and is stunned to find a ship full of sick, starving creatures that look like bipedal shellfish. The aliens are ferried down to Johannesburg, but the public reaction to the ugly and confusing refugees is so negative that the “prawns” (quickly-coined epithet of choice) are corralled into the titular slum and fenced off from the rest of the world. Twenty years later, little has changed—except that a company called Multinational United has been hired to relocate the aliens to a new, remote, and concentration-campy facility called District 10.
For much (but not all) of its running time, District 9 is ostensibly a documentary about the relocation effort, which is led by mid-level administrative thug Wikus van der Merwe. In the course of the eviction of the prawns, Wikus becomes entangled in a twenty-years-in-the-making plan forged by a prawn named Christopher Johnson. Various talking heads spend the first few minutes of the film making hay over a controversial, unspecified action of Wikus’, and we quickly realize that the documentary is not so much about the relocation as it is about him.
The documentary format is perhaps my favorite thing about District 9. The talking heads are utterly unreliable, sometimes openly prejudiced, so although they do a lot of expository heavy-lifting, we have to actively interrogate everything we’re told and shown. The middle of the film often abandons the documentary conceit, and we’re allowed to compare glimpses of the interior lives of the prawns to what we’ve been told by “experts.” It’s an exercise in critical viewing, and that’s welcome.
But once viewed critically, District 9 falls apart.
The film’s world, appropriately enough, is too neatly regimented, too clean and simple. The entire trans-species drama plays out in Johannesburg. There’s never any strong sense that the international community has competing ideas about what to do with the newcomers. MNU is the only organization involved in prawn affairs, and only one criminal element—a group of muti practitioners consistently referred to as “The Nigerians”—operates within the slum. We never see any sign of diverse attitudes or motives within any group: the humans here are consistently selfish and opportunistic, a sort of hive mind of banal evil, and with the exception of Christopher Johnson, the aliens are even more uniform.
Over the course of twenty years, not a single prawn has worked as a mercenary, staged a resistance effort, advocated for assimilation or escape. Talking heads speculate that the refugees belong to a half-brained drone caste bereft of a queen, but a) the talking heads are prejudiced and unreliable, and b) the time we spend with Christopher Johnson and his son suggests that the aliens are surprisingly, perhaps disappointingly, human in their interior lives. Indeed, the more insight the film gave me into Christopher Johnson, the less I believed in the prawns. They are almost the textbook definition of a poorly conceived alien race: they are all of a kind, physically and attitudinally; they apparently build nothing but spaceships and cool weapons; they show no signs of having cultures or customs, songs or beliefs, games or politics or taboos. They are an homogeneous Other.
This is, of course, the simplicity of fable and allegory, but that very simplicity raises troubling questions, forces us to engage each attribute of the prawns and the world they inhabit as if it might carry strong allegorical value. What, then, are we to make of the aliens’ mononature, their inability to function without a leadership caste? What do we make of the flesh-eating Nigerians, who are notably the only black Africans we ever see with any power? What are we to make of the narrative’s total lack of significant women—even among the prawns? Blomkamp’s clumsy worldbuilding renders his allegory even clumsier, and that is the great weakness of the film. I don’t mind occasional failures of science fictional logic—of which there are many* here—but District 9 repeatedly trips on its own thematic shoelaces.
It’s not a bad film—not in the sense that Transformers 2 is a bad film. It’s an exciting, visually beautiful story, and it is, strikingly, the first movie I’ve seen that feels like contemporary SF. The postcolonial themes (however poorly explored), the narrative deviousness and sheer artful weirdness, the obvious desire to produce something simultaneously energetic and thoughtful reminded me constantly of writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, Dominic Green, and Aliette de Bodard. Even as the film fell apart, I was gratified to see the values of strong contemporary SF valued onscreen.
My feelings on District 9 are so mixed that I’d have a hard time recommending it (or not) except on a person-by-person basis. I’m glad I saw it, and it disappointed me. It’s an inept allegory and an unpersuasive piece of SF, but it’s an invigorating failure, something worth discussing and dissecting. As a dispatch from a region of the world underrepresented in both film and SF, it’s undoubtedly an important work. My hope is that District 9 may open the way for more weird and thoughtful science fiction, more global science fiction, and that those future works may engage with the crucial questions that this film fumbles. More than anything, District 9 feels like the start of a fantastic conversation.
* Just one logic fail among many: Christopher Johnson spends twenty years collecting and synthesizing a small tube of fuel. Though Wikus spills much of the fuel on himself at the beginning of the film, the half-empty tube later suffices for its full, intended purpose. There are many similar plot holes, each as vast and dumb as anything in GI Joe.