by Carl Kozlowski
Is it possible for a film to be both a brilliant, exciting piece of entertainment, and also a completely illogical piece of heavy-handed political propaganda? It is, if the new science-fiction oddity “District 9” is any indication.
Led by a stunning performance by Sharlto Copley, who is not only unknown to audiences outside South Africa, but who had never acted in anything but short films before, “District 9” blasts through its running time with a furious mix of action and satire. Yet its central plotline, focusing on what might happen if space aliens approached Johannesburg and were then held in a segregated district for nearly three decades, is riddled with holes and bangs viewers over the head with its allegories of racial discrimination harkening back to the evil days of that nation’s apartheid policies.
The film kicks off with a fast-paced blend of fake newscasts and faux-documentary footage shot by a camera crew that’s been assigned to cover a mass evacuation of aliens from their home in the city’s District 9. The aliens had come in a giant mother ship back in 1982, but no one has ever figured out why they arrived and left the ship to hover eternally over Johannesburg.
In a series of darkly witty and disturbingly tense newsclips, it is revealed that humans helped bring the million aliens found aboard the giant spacecraft down to earth. But tensions have exacerbated between humans and aliens over the last 27 years, with the ugly space creatures taking pleasure in wreaking havoc on society and generally living at odds with the humans around them.
Finally, the government decides to trick the aliens to sign forms that will force them into being evacuated to a new tent city 240 kilometers outside the city. But when many of the aliens don’t want to move and the human cops start playing a little too rough, fighting breaks out unexpectedly.
Even worse for the humans is that their mission’s leader, a nerdy bureaucrat named Wikus (played by Copley), stumbles across some nasty fluid the aliens have secretly developed and is now transforming into an alien himself. When he has to go on the run to avoid being turned into the world’s greatest scientific experiment, the film turns into a suspenseful chase thriller augmented by Copley’s ever-more-tragic performance, as he loses his humanity and is terribly aware that by extension, he’s losing his wife and their life together.
With stellar special effects, superbly seamless editing between the fake documentary footage and the “newscasts,” and Copley’s multilayered, star-making role, there’s plenty to recommend “District 9” – and the film has scoredan almost unmatched 97 percent approval rating from US and British critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site. But once viewers step back out of the theater and into the light of day, myriad questions will unfold to anyone who gives the film a second thought.
I’ll place the countless questions under a SPOILER ALERT:
The film never explains why the aliens came to earth, which creates a nice sense of foreboding and mystery for a while until it dissipates with the realization that the writer/director Neil Blomkamp will never bother to explain it. The aliens – who look so much like the space beast in “Predator” that a lawsuit might be called for – and humans manage to communicate, despite the fact subtitles are used to explain the aliens’ language for the viewer and no explanation is given of how the aliens have come to understand earthly English without speaking it themselves, and how the humans understand them in return.
Worst of all, the film attempts to utilize its faux-documentary approach throughout its running time despite the fact that cameras would surely have been banned from the premises while the government attempts its dastardly experiments on Wikus in his hybrid human/alien state. And when Wikus is on the run, dashing through streets and leaping over and climbing under spaces into which humans could never fit, the documentary crew is ludicrously there with a perfect shot at all times. If you think that NBC’s sitcom “The Office” occasionally films an unbelievable angle, this might result in scoffing laughter.
There’s also a little thing on earth called gravity, yet the aliens’ mother ship is able to float above it for nearly three decades without falling from the sky. (Come to think of it, why don’t spaceships EVER fall out of the sky in movies like this and “Independence Day”? And how come, with perhaps the exception of E.T.. – who was still hardly a beauty queen – all film aliens are the ugliest creatures imaginable?)
But on a serious note, the film is attempting to score points off apartheid – a policy that was eradicated by South Africans in 1994, a full 15 years ago. The aliens are dark-skinned, and all the humans pursuing them are white, despite the fact that the government and all levels of society have been integrated or even overwhelmingly black for the past decade and a half. But since this is a movie that has to push an agenda, the aliens (blacks) wind up far more sympathetic than the white humans chasing them.
This might have been brilliant 20 years ago, as a piece of agitprop designed to stir the masses against the elitist white power structure. But coming so late in the game, “District 9” is like an over-decorated yet forgettable Christmas present: attractive on the surface but extremely disappointing within.