Jackson-endorsed ‘District 9’ watchable but often nonsensical and lacking detail

The alien's stalled mother ship in a scene from "District ...

This movie still released by Sony Pictures shows, left to right, ...

Reuters and Associated Press images

Arthropodic extraterrestrials’ ship is stalled above Johannesburg, South Africa, in stills from the Peter Jackson-endorsed “District 9,” which came in at No. 1 at the box office this weekend.

I love a good science fiction movie, especially one with political overtones, and since according to Yahoo!’s roundup, the film critics gave “District 9” an average grade of “A-“ — and since “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson gave “District 9” his stamp of approval (he is one of the film’s producers, and the ads for “District 9” tell us this) — I dragged the boyfriend to it yesterday.

I give it a “B.”

“District 9” has some interesting concepts, such as the apparent parallels between the “prawns” (the crustacean-like extraterrestrials put in a concentration camp called District 9 in South Africa after they found themselves stranded on Earth) and the Palestinians in occupied Palestine, and private military corporation “MNU” (“Multi-National United”) and private military corporation Blackwater, but “District 9” has too many elements that just don’t make sense for me to be able to give it anything higher than a “B.”

Where to begin?

There is the mysterious black liquid extract — we’re never told what it consists of — made in an ET’s shack like an impoverished, desperate person might make methamphetamine in his shack, and this mysterious black liquid, which took the ET two decades to make, not only powers the stranded ETs’ ship, which still hovers (somehow — that’s not explained either) over Johannesburg, but also somehow slowly turns the human protagonist into one of the ETs after he accidentally splashes himself with it. (The mysterious black liquid probably is a great stain remover, too…)

Then there is the alternating view of the ETs’ capabilities. At first they’re portrayed as rather savage and stupid, caring only about feasting upon livestock carcasses (especially the heads, for some reason) and canned cat food (yes, canned cat food), and then at least one of them, the protagonist ET, is portrayed as having quite sophisticated technological ability, far surpassing that of humans.

The human protagonist is portrayed as being about as sympathetic to the ETs as any of his human counterparts are ever going to be — he doesn’t like it when the ETs are exterminated wantonly by MNU’s hair-triggered, testosterone-overdosed mercenaries — yet in one scene he demonstrates that he has no problems with the destruction of the ETs’ young, noting that when set aflame, the ET-ling pods make an interesting popping sound. (Apparently the ETs are to get human approval before reproducing, and these young thus were “illegal.”)

If District 9 is a closed-off area meant to contain the ETs, then why do the ETs have such frequent, such apparently casual contact with the South African gang members?

Speaking of which, how, exactly, do humans and the ETs have sexual relations? (Apparently female human prostitutes cater to the male ETs, and the protagonist human apparently is accused of having had sex with a female ET.)

What exactly were the medical experiments that MNU was conducting on the hapless ETs?

Was the protagonist ET especially intelligent for his kind? Was he a special kind of his kind? Were the other ETs like worker bees, not meant to be very intelligent?

While I love to empathize with an extraterrestrial, especially a benign one persecuted by ignorant humans, would a crustaceous extraterrestrial really regard its offspring the way that a human male would regard his son? Would the crusty ET’s offspring really be kind of like a little boy? And wouldn’t such an ET have many offspring, and not just one? And where was the mommy ET?

“District 9” is watchable enough, but I’m the kind of person who needs a movie to make sense.

I’m sure that it’s not easy to create such an alternate reality as director and screenwriter Neill Blomkamp did in “District 9” — there are so many angles that you have to look from in such creation, and so many details that you have to create in order to satisfy those angles — and I don’t have to have every little thing explained to me, but what is (more or less…) explained to me at least should have its own internal logic.

When it doesn’t, that interferes with my ability to enjoy the film, and that’s why I can give “District 9” only a “B.” It’s a good-enough idea, but its execution is lacking. Attention to its own internal logic seems to have been sacrificed for special effects, such as the climactic battle scene of the protagonist human in the automated body armor that is too reminiscent of what we’ve already seen in “Iron Man” and even in “Aliens” (ditto for the fried alien eggs; we saw those in “Aliens,” also).

My grade: B

P.S. I’m not familiar with South Africa’s history, but film critic Roger Ebert explains in his review of “District 9”:

The film’s South African setting brings up inescapable parallels with its now-defunct apartheid system of racial segregation. Many of them are obvious, such as the action to move a race out of the city and to a remote location. Others will be more pointed in South Africa. The title “District 9” evokes Cape Town’s historic District 6, where Cape Coloureds (as they were called then) owned homes and businesses for many years before being bulldozed out and relocated.

The hero’s name, van der Merwe, is not only a common name for Afrikaners, the white South Africans of Dutch descent, but also the name of the protagonist of van der Merwe jokes, of which the point is that the hero is stupid. Nor would it escape a South African ear that the alien language incorporates clicking sounds, just as Bantu, the language of a large group of African apartheid targets.

Being unfamiliar with South Africa, the parallels between the real South Africa and the South Africa portrayed in “District 9” were quite escapable to me… I still see a parallel between the “prawns” and the Palestinians, however, and with the plight of the Palestinians being portrayed in the media to this day, it seems to me that I’m probably not alone.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Jackson-endorsed ‘District 9’ watchable but often nonsensical and lacking detail

  1. stamperoo

    I enjoyed reading your review- it’s very well-written and you raise a lot of good points that also annoyed me (where are the other smart aliens? how did the ship stay up? etc.). For me, though, what really stood out with this film was a disturbing undercurrent of racism, which feels like manipulative, cheap, gimmicky, gross-out filmmaking. It really interfered with my enjoyment of the film despite the fact that I enjoyed other aspects, like the documentary-style first act, the special effects, and a really strong lead performance.
    http://pageslap.wordpress.com/2009/08/17/district-9-is-racist/

    • robertdcrook

      I read your thoughtful analysis of potential racism in “District 9,” and oh, hell, I don’t even want to go into a discussion of racism… But I will, briefly:

      Yes, “District 9” does not paint a flattering portrait of black South Africans, such as having them engage in prostitution, gangsterism and cannibalism or quasi-cannibalism (I say “quasi-” because didn’t they only intend to actually eat crab meat [so to speak] in the movie?). However, are those portrayals of blacks in South Africa anything at all like some blacks are at least at times in the poorest parts of South Africa? I’m guessing that there are black gangsters and black hos in the poorest parts of South Africa, but don’t know. If the answer is that “District 9” fairly accurately portrays what you might actually see in South Africa, then it’s hard to say that the film is patently racist.

      And that said, whitey isn’t portrayed very flatteringly in “District 9,” either. Really, in “District 9” all that separates the blacks from the whites is that the whites have more money… Behaviorly, they’re pretty much the same… I mean, while the black gangsters want to eat themselves some human-lobster hybrid, the whites conduct Nazi-like experiments on live ETs, apparently. (And, of course, keeping the ETs in a concentration camp is a pretty Nazi-like thing to do, isn’t it?)

      While I’m sure that most black people wouldn’t want to be associated with the way that blacks are portrayed in “District 9,” I, as a white guy, wouldn’t want to be associated with the way whites are portrayed in “District 9,” either…

      Really, when you think about it, it’s the ETs who are the most admirable in the film…

      Anyway, still though, yes, “District 9” opens itself up to a long discussion of race and racism, and I would delve into that more deeply if I were at all familiar with South Africa.

      • Ed

        Those characters aren’t black South Africans, they’re Nigerians. So technically it’s a South African writer/director creating ugly imagery pertaining to Nigerian immigrants.

  2. Not meaning to sound antagonistic, but you come accross as a bit of SciFi neophyte in your review of District. You say that you don’t need every thing explained to you, but the rest of your post indicates that you do.

    Don’t get me wrong, personally I give D9 a B+ (so we’re actually not that far apart in our assessments). It has its share of flaws, but I was easily able to come up with plausible explanations for all the lapses of internal logic you site. One of the things I most liked about the film is that it doesn’t try to exposit every little detail, that it leaves room for the audience to postulate, that the film makers didn’t feel the need to “spoon feed.” I like that it’s comfortable with “well, we don’t actually know for sure.” Much like many complex situations in life and scientific method systems.

    Anyway, decent review, and cheers.

    Moaters

  3. robertdcrook

    A “SciFi neophyte”? Oh, well, I’ve been called much worse, and I guess that “SciFi neophyte” is better than “virginal Trekkie”…

    Oh, I could have done without having had basic things explained to me, such as why the ETs came to Earth in the first place and how their ship managed to keep hovering even though it was inoperable. I agree with you that there is no need to spoon-feed the audience. But again, what is explained or presented should have its own consistent internal logic. For instance, it makes no sense that arthropodic ETs that look like a cross between crabs and grasshoppers would be so human-like. I mean, bugs don’t have “Leave-It-to-Beaver”-like father-son relationships.

    It is not my impression that what is not explained in “District 9” is not explained out of a respect for the audience not to spoon-feed the audience. Nor, I think, is this out of an Awe for the Unknown. These are details that apparently just weren’t worked out in the script… (Or, to be generous, maybe they were but got cut from the final edit of the film.)

    Still, despite its flaws, “District 9” is watchable science fiction, which I dare say even though I’m only a neophyte. (Or, as Michael Valentine Smith says in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, “I am only an egg.” Oh, wait — would a sci-fi neophyte know that???)

    • I suppose I owe you a response as you saw fit to respond to my mildly provocative comment (at least by Internet standards at any rate).

      So, you’re a Heinlein fan, eh? I am too. I read Citizen of the Galaxy when I was ten, and have read most of his body of work since then. I’ve always regarded [Stranger in a Strange Land] as more “sociopolitical” commentary than “‘true’/hard/futurist” science fiction. I appreciate his work a great deal however one interprets it.

      I have to say that your review, and the comments posted to this community’s discussion boards in general, are among the most thoughtful, articulate, and civil discourse I’ve come across whilst searching for opinions of D9.

      With that said, I still don’t see near as many issues with the film’s internal logic as you’ve delineated. Perhaps my imagination is a bit more forgiving, or even a bit more apologetic.

      My take is that the film succeeds in a significantly greater measure than the nits you chose to pick — intelligent SciFi film fare is damn hard to come by these days; I’ll site the “Transformers” franchise and “Star Trek” as examples (even though I quite enjoyed “Star Trek” from a fanboy/TV franchise/nostalgia point of view, I can’t honestly say it was a “great movie”).

      Did you see David Bowie’s son’s (Duncan Jones’) directorial debut, “Moon”? I found it extremely thought-provoking, and Sam Rockwell just rocked in his role IMO.

      Have you read much Heinlein other than SIASL?

      Kind regards,

      Moaters

  4. robertdcrook

    Oh, I can e-brawl with the best of them; it’s just that I don’t pride myself on being a sci-fi expert, so being called a sci-fi “neophyte” was no big insult.

    I like internal logic in all of my films, not just sci-fi films. Again, I don’t expect to be spoon-fed every detail, and I’m OK with things left to the audience’s imagination, but every detail that is given should make sense. Otherwise, it seems to me, it’s sloppy work.

    No, I haven’t read much Heinlein outside of Stranger in a Strange Land, which I had to read waaay back in high school as part of the science fiction course that I took. (It was an elective English course that I loved, especially the famous short stories by various sci-fi authors.)

    Yes, I saw “Moon.” Loved Sam Rockwell in the lead roles. I like the concept of “Moon,” most everything is explained to my satisfaction and its internal logic is pretty sound. I never reviewed it here, but I’d give it an “A-” or at least a “B+.” I had feared from its previews that it might be too much like “2001” with the talking on-board computer, but “Moon” is pretty original.

    “Transformers” isn’t a movie I would go see, truth be told. Too kiddie, it seems to me. I saw the reboot of “Star Trek” and I would give it a “B.” While entertaining enough, the villain is just too rehashed from previous “Trek” endeavors, for one thing. (Much of the storyline too also seems too familiar, too rehashed.) I like the actor who plays Spock, though — Jeremy Quinto, is it? For some reason I find him to be hotter than Chris Pine…

  5. robertdcrook

    Yes, I understood that.

  6. Greg

    I’ve followed South Africa for decades, and was very familiar with it during apartheid via a lot of pen pals there, and from daily broadcasts on shortwave from the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corp.). It’s quite a different place now in many ways (politically free, unhindered press) but in many ways the same (shanty towns, lack of great progress in the economic progress of blacks). But knowing what it was then and now I’m very proud of them. After all, they migrated from a racist government to one run by those that were oppressed. It’s a great achievement of the human spirit. I’m sure that most South Africans are very proud of this movie as a national accomplishment, and rightly so. As a sci-fi fan myself I too look for things to make sense, so those holes you mentioned will leave me wanting as well. I’m sure I’ll catch most of the parallels to their past though, though probably not until I’m watching it from the comfort of my home on Sci-Fi (won’t call it by the new moniker) or Chill3r.

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