Review: District 9 (2009)
A crazy mish-mash of sci-fi and pop culture tropes of the last twenty or thirty years, District 9 is entertaining, a passable action film, not-bad science fiction, quite funny in places, and stilted in others. It wants to be more than an okay alien invasion movie like 1996's The Arrival, but it's not much more than an okay alien invasion movie like that.
The film stars Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe, a mid-level bureaucrat at MNU, a corporation tasked with moving a huge population of shrimp-insect hybrid-looking refugee aliens from their Johannesburg home of 20 years, known as District 9, to a new, more "concentrated" home in "District 10." The apartheid, Holocaust and refugee-situation analogies abound, and some are handled more adroitly than others.
A major weakness of the film is its frame, an "Office"-like conceit that we are watching documentary footage, or news footage of certain events. That conceit is not carried out as well as in other recent efforts like Cloverfield or Quarantine, where the camera actually becomes a believable observer of wildly out-of-control events, as we often see events that could not possibly have been captured on film, or, if they were, the audience can't tell any way how this might have been accomplished. As a result, many of the scenes don't seem to blend well together, hurting the overall unity of the storytelling effort.
That said, the film does have a certain dark sense of humor which is more usefully ironic at certain times than at others, well-executed integration of the alien effects with more quotidian settings, and, in places, strong performances by the lead actor as the unfortunate Van De Merwe, as well as by Jason Cope as news correspondent Grey Bradnam as well as Cope again (and the digital/puppeteer team) as "Christopher Johnson," the alien elder/scientist who is trying to find a way home for his fellow beings.
A major weakness of the parallels between this story and real-life situations it means to parody and comment upon is the fact that these aliens really do not get along well with humans. They steal, fight and kill with impunity and greatly overwhelming physical and weapons superiority. Is this because of their situation, which might create conflicts and sympathies with similar situations in history, or just pure killer alien? The film poses these questions, then shows an alien ripping someone to shreds. Which is kind of funny, but not deeply analogous to apartheid, etc., so I found the joke to be somewhat strained, frequently.
It is funny when Van De Merwe, sprayed with a biological agent/alien fuel, begins transforming into a hybrid human-alien, and starts to mimic what has been presented as typical alien behavior. Is he just "humanist," following his own prejudices, or are the anti-social or weird behaviors truly hard-wired into the aliens' biology? This is the film at its best.
At its worst, the film tries for sentiment or emotional attachment and engagement which is not effective. Van De Merwe's wife (Vanessa Haywood) is only interesting when she's on the telephone with him when he goes on the run trying to save himself (from which side?), but is mawkish and better left on the cutting-room floor most of the time.
Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope both have a lot to do in this film, with Copley going from bureaucrat to fugitive to hybrid alien to action star, and Cope playing newsman Bradnam as well as many of the aliens. Copley in particular has a certain David Thewlis energy and is quite funny, moving in places and mostly charmingly odd. They both get to show an impressive acting range.
Overall, District 9 is satisfying, if overlong and too pat in too many places. The aliens aren't incredibly original or visually amazing, but they're good, and their plight is more interesting. If the film had more idea of where it was going and what it was trying to say, it could have been great.
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