Saturday, May 22, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie watches a ham-fisted "political" sci-fi, recommends one sadly better

#70. District 9



I have read reviews of this film claiming it to be a masterpiece, the first great sci-fi film to come along in a while. I cannot even begin to fathom why.

District 9 is presented as a documentary in haphazard styles: The first third of the film is done with shaky camerawork in what seems too ludicrous a narrative rhythm to be anything but mockumentary. A long second act of the film then drops all pretense of documentary at all, following instead one man, Wikus, whose bizarre plight I'll address momentarily, as he's forced to experience life "on the other side" and makes friends along the way. The short final piece of the film, however, sweeps back to documentary of a more formal calibre, attempting neutrality but instead just coming off as blisteringly naive. It's a mishmash of styles, sure, but that's the least of this film's problems.

The story is ultimately about Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), put in charge by a munitions corporation twenty-eight years after an alien ship was trapped over Johannesburg, South Africa, to relocate "The Prawns" from their current ghetto (District 9) to a new camp. As the documentary first follows him and his military accompaniment, we see the viciousness with which humans exploit the aliens and the limited value placed on their lives. Then Wikus fools around with a piece of alien equipment in a house he's searching for weapons, and alien goo spatters him. By nightfall, everything's changed: Wikus starts turning into an alien, and the military corporation responds by treating him with the same base disrespect as one. Wikus, starting to see life from "the other side," is forced into hiding in District 9 where he befriends an alien who, after almost thirty years stranded on earth, is ready to return the control component to the great big mothership in the sky and fly off for help. Wikus agrees to help in exchange for this prawn's promise of returning him to his original, human state. Flimsy bonding emerges. Wikus still takes a long time to show even a smidgen of compassion. Action sequence. Action sequence. Close.

A lot of commentary surrounding this film involved comparisons to apartheid, and I have to say those are big fat jokes. There are so many gaping plot holes in this film as makes a fair comparison bloody unlikely, if nigh on impossible. Here are a few:

The aliens have serious firepower, and lots of it, but when humans start exploiting the heck out of them, they trade these weapons for tins of catfood and scurry home meekly, only to fight on the streets in hand-to-claw combat at later dates. What?

The aliens aren't surprised that their fuel turns Wikus into an alien: They even have a convenient means at the ready to fix him. What?

Alien life has come to Earth. Regardless of where they set down, are we truly to believe the rest of the world isn't scrambling to take part for thirty years of alien ghettoization, let alone the immediate resettlement process when it becomes clear Johannesburg can't handle them? And are we further to believe that military corporations are granted exclusive access to these camps? Where the bloody hell are the world's economic and political superpowers?

And are we really supposed to believe the aliens would become so quickly fragmented from each other, numbers living like primitives while only a precious few retain any sort of plan at all? Think about every time you've seen humans stranded on another planet in film. Think about how the crews maintained systems of hierarchy and how group dynamics won out. We're supposed to believe that from the very outset, these aliens with killer firepower meekly allowed themselves to be separated and fall apart in terms of personal and group discipline. Really. A spaceship crew. Come on, folks. Did Star Trek teach us nothing?

There is, truly, only one way in which apartheid is even close to broached in an effective, cogent manner by this film: Its inordinate, undeserved prioritization of the White Man's story. White Man gets to act like an asshole all throughout the movie, regardless of his predicament and the empathy it's supposed to induce, and the prawn is still supposed to utter his gratitude and make an extraordinarily compassionate promise at the movie's close. Seriously, if there's one thing Hollywood does well, it's making every bloody other culture a prop or tool for White Protagonists -- and clearly that arrogance now extends even to other worldly cultures! Huzzah!

I hate to say it, but Enemy Mine -- a B-grade film based on a Nebula-Award-winning short story of the same name -- does it better. And when Enemy Mine does it better, dude, you've utterly failed.

3 comments:

madkevin said...

"The aliens have serious firepower, and lots of it, but when humans start exploiting the heck out of them, they trade these weapons for tins of catfood and scurry home meekly, only to fight on the streets in hand-to-claw combat at later dates. What?"

The prawns left on earth are the worker castes; they can't use the weaponry.

"The aliens aren't surprised that their fuel turns Wikus into an alien: They even have a convenient means at the ready to fix him. What?"

The basis of the prawn's technology is biologic - the fluid might act similar to how royal jelly works on bees. Given that, they wouldn't be surprised to see it work on a human too.

That said, the fluid is definitely the sloppiest narrative bit in the movie, in that it strains belief at how many different properties the fluid has and can be used for.

"Alien life has come to Earth. Regardless of where they set down, are we truly to believe the rest of the world isn't scrambling to take part for thirty years of alien ghettoization, let alone the immediate resettlement process when it becomes clear Johannesburg can't handle them? And are we further to believe that military corporations are granted exclusive access to these camps? Where the bloody hell are the world's economic and political superpowers?"

This is a more subtle bit of the movie, but there's been a shift in global power from governments to corporations. The real power of the movie isn't South Africa, it's Multinational United. The corporation controls the world economy AND it's superpowers.

"And are we really supposed to believe the aliens would become so quickly fragmented from each other, numbers living like primitives while only a precious few retain any sort of plan at all?"

Again: Caste society. What happens when you cut off a worker ant from it's colony? It doesn't start a new one.

tom s. said...

I agree with Maggie - how this mildly entertaining bit of schlock got the reputation it did is a mystery. Oddly though, the bits that made me roll my eyes were smaller plot points, like the raid on the HQ by Mikus when - untalented man with no experience evading many fully armed security types, and escaping in a convenient car in the parking lot, which had the keys conveniently ready to turn.

And yes, the apartheid stuff was slap-around-the-head heavy handed.

cjb said...

Don't forget what is one of Gen X Blog's greatest hits:

http://genxvideo.blogspot.com/2010/01/creepy-pedro-reviews-district-9.html