ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 8/24/09
A couple of points before I get started on this review – first off, I would like to apologize to Republibot 3.0 for taking a week to actually write this and post it up here on the site after I promised to have it up last Sunday. All I can say is that I got caught up in the third Sandman Trade Paperback compilation by Neil Gaiman and the book The Magicians by Lev Grossman, then I lost my review notes somehow (which I just found today in the Barnes & Noble bag that held the two books), after which I got caught up in my work week at my day job. Secondly, you need to understand that I am a reformed major movie nerd. I read a ton of online stuff and start building my opinion early on upcoming and anticipated big releases. This leads me to often set different expectations for movies than is generally appreciated.
I think the best way I can kind of level set this whole conversation and get my overall take on District 9 out there is to say that the story and the acting is on about a par with a Syfy Channel Original. It has a story that is loosely pirated from the theme of an earlier relatively successful film – in this case Alien Nation (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094631/) – and is cast with a number of mid-level charismatics/unknowns that wouldn't be able to open a major big budget movie on their own. It starts in pseudo documentary style and then pops in and out of that format as needed in order to drive the plot forward.
The premise is pretty straight forward – a large alien ship appears in the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa and sits above the city for two months before human forces attempt to break in. Inside is a large population of aliens that are in disarray and directionless. The multi-national earth forces then transport them all to the surface and set them up in a series of relocation type of camps. This is all set up in the first 10 minutes or so of the movie with foreshadowed interviews with bit players in the pending story and in news report excerpts. The main story takes up 20 years later as the government tries a forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to further away from the human population of Johannesburg.
The name District 9 is apparently a reference to the real District 6 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_Six,_Cape_Town) which was an inner city residential area in Cape Town that experienced a forced removal of its over 60,000 inhabitants in the mid-seventies by the ruling Apartheid regime of the time. There has been a lot of buzz and talk about the political sub-text to this movie and its intelligent representation and commentary of the evils of Apartheid in the context of a science fiction movie. But to be honest I didn’t see any of that and a lot of my pre-viewing opinion was built on that strategic studio marketing messaging that was put into the publicity of the film. What I did see was the complete irrelevance of the black South African characters as a whole except as gangsters/gang members and convenient plot devices, and the representation of the aliens themselves as creatures of impulse and addiction with very little intelligent interaction with their surrounding except for one Father and son pair.
The plot follows a mid-level functionary in Multinational United (MNU), a Blackwater type of private defense contractor that is brought in to oversee the forced relocation of District 9. He is a relatively good natured individual and is married to the boss’s daughter so he gets the plum assignment of overseeing the notice of eviction to the alien population. During the notice of eviction action he is exposed to an alien chemical agent which begins to overwrite his DNA slowly turning him into an alien himself. This provides MNU with a whole new line of inquiry on how to access all of the alien weaponry that is only functional if used by an actual alien and this sets up the human side of the central conflict and the extended cat and mouse chase that runs through the rest of the movie. The alien side of the central conflict is built around an Alien father and son that have been working for 20 years to pull together enough tech and fuel and re-power a lost command module in order to return to the mother ship and go for help.
When our mid-level human functionary and our uncharacteristically motivated and intelligent alien father team up our story moves firmly and competently into Syfy channel territory – including the vague and open ending.
I don't want to give the impression that the whole movie stunk, because it didn't, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the excessive hype that has been trumpeting its release for the last 6 months or so. The promised social commentary and added depth that has been discussed ad nauseum from staging the action in and around Johannesburg adds little to nothing, other than maybe pointing out that white South Africans don’t really have much expectation from black South Africans, and actually think that imaginary aliens have more intelligent solutions to offer their people than the violent arms obsessed quasi cannibals black humans do.
Now to the stuff that you care about: the close up alien effects were definitely very, very good, but the wide shots and full body alien effects didn't work as well. The acting was consistent though not great, the lead (Sharlto Copley) was decently cast and actually reminded me a lot of Timothy Balme’s performance in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103873/) for some reason. The big action sequences were great – the handheld ENG type shooting style of the footage gave the fire fights a much more visceral feel, and the Mecha battle was quite geek worthy.
So, to sum up – regardless of what the faux geek illiterati on all of the fan boy sites have to say, the story doesn’t really work and it doesn’t come close to delivering on the promised intellectual depth and social commentary, but the clichéd sci-fi elements are all there and at times over-deliver but not enough to make up for the under delivery of character and story. After you see this then go back and re-watch Alien Nation and then jump into the TV series where the premise had more room to be explored properly, and then let’s not get caught up in slaverish hyperbole too quickly again.