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.