Alien Nationby Roger Young / 26.08.2009
Minor Spoiler Alert Review
Lets not get too excited. District 9 is not the greatest Sci-Fi film ever made. If anything it’s about halfway between The Fly and Starship Troopers. Which means it’s a pretty damn good science fiction action film that has some intellectual comment on double standards. As a South African cultural moment however, there is no doubt that it has set a new high water mark. But let’s set that aside and look at it how it stands up purely as a film.
Starting off D9 is a cheeky allegorical look at racism and immigration issues. It does so using faux documentary, news and security camera footage. A lot of the exposition is straight to camera. Most of the dynamic between the main character, Wikus, and his wife is explained to us, we never really see it. This does not help the film’s pay off. The relationship between Wikus and the hired mercenaries is also a lazy set up that feels hollow. To the films credit though there is a lot of back-story to get through, and this is probably the most economical method to do so. Many have commented that the opening exposition part of the film is the most engaging, but with the amount of information thrown at the viewer it had better be, on a pure informational level (And I urge you to listen, don’t complain about plot holes later if you don’t take in every little thing you are told in the opening third), for me however it is the characters “growth” that is the most engaging aspect of the film, the restraint of Sharlto Copelys dark humorous performance. He’s so good that you forgive him that contrived haircut. D9 uses all the “allegory” to set up what amounts to a scrappy fight scene replete ‘plosions that segues into an emotional three punch ending. Essentially it’s a gritty little B-grade film with a bit of heart and a first year university sense of morals.
It begs the question, how did this film (without the audience having knowledge of all the South African references) that is not really that good, do so well in America? Because Sci-Fi in Hollywood is now reduced to product placement and toy commercials. I doubt that Spielbergs “Close Encounters” would even find financing today, even if it was Spielberg who first bought product placement to big budget Sci-Fi with E.T’s M&M’s and Pizza Hut moments. This is why D9 works, because it’s slight intelligence and clumsy allegories are so much more meatier than anything Hollywood has offered of late. Plus aliens and explosions!
But we’re not in Kansas. We cannot set aside the many in-jokes, the reworking of cliché’s, all the many things that make us feel that this a truly great South African film.
It is filled with our references, makes in-jokes out of cultural touchstones and slogans, sneakily casts the SABC as a front for corporate bullshit (watch for Mehendra, like Michael De Morgan before him, reading lies off the autocue), has dumb jock mercenaries from the East Rand shooting shit and shouting “Bliksem!”. It lays bare all the intricacies of corporate greed and faulty race relations and tells us that goodness and humanity will win out in the end. Plus, y’know, aliens and explosions!