Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9 (Movie Review)

This Peter Jackson produced sci-fi flick has been simmering in the kettle for awhile now. But does it live up to the mystique? Hard to say.

My viewing of the film was tainted a bit by rumors I had heard that the flick had a heavy political agenda. I carried that baggage with me until almost the last 20 minutes of the movie, so my mind was a bit distracted and I may have been thinking too hard. So bear with me as I try to compensate for the baggage I brought to the movie and try to fairly review this movie.

The basic premise is that aliens came to earth 20 years ago in horrible physical condition. It's suggested that they were part of some sort of intergalactic "forced labor" and escaped to earth, seeking refuge. Humanity welcomes them and gives them some territory to live in, but then takes advantage of them economically, obsessed with gaining the alien's weapons technology. There is also a clear lack of respect, even racism toward the aliens.

The lead character is a man who works for the oppressive human government, who is infected by alien technology that allows him to make use of the alien's weapons, which humans are normally unable to do. From that point of the movie until the end, various group of people want to either capture, kill, or in some way use him for their own gain.

The story is interesting enough. I was certainly never bored and was actually very invested in the direction of the plot. But I was involved more intellectually than emotionally for most of the film. The script and documentary style just don't lend themselves to helping us get to know these characters.

District 9 looks great from beginning to end. It's use of the documentary film style is striking and helps cover flaws in special effects, much as the camera work did the same for "Battlestar Galactica". The visuals were not cheap, by any standards, but like most CGI effects, they look like CGI effects. The details are great, but the motion looks computer generated. Still, the various weapons, robotics and explosions are fun to watch and most movie fans will likely be impressed or at least pleased.

Adding to the gritty realism this film shoots for is the fact that it is cast with unknowns from top to bottom. A VERY nice change of pace. The acting was wonderful across the board (though a couple "bad guys" were a little cookie-cutter) and during the first 15 minutes of "interviews" I kept wondering how they cast so many small roles with so many believable actors! The lack of a single American accent made me feel just a little like a cultural outsider, but at the same time it brought a wonderful sense of realism to the movie.

As for the relevance of this film to real world issues, it certainly scores well in this category. I can easily see people having worthwhile conversation after watching District 9. But if I were to start a conversation after this film, it wouldn't be about Apartheid or racim, issues the script was inspired by. Why? Because aliens are aliens and people are people. The film clearly paints the aliens as victim and the human "segregationists" as bad guys, but I can't firmly put a black hat on the humans for wanting to be separated from the aliens. I think it's certainly wrong to take advantage of and manipulate them, but separation just makes sense. Nowhere in the film was their any discussion of comparative biology between the aliens and humans. It appears that humans just brought them to earth without making any effort to screen them for possible viruses or diseases that would be potentially harmful to humans. These are alien life forms, for Pete's sake! Just opening up their ship may have exposed the world to a deadly airborne virus!

One could argue that I'm being a little too serious about this plot issue and that the movie is not meant to be realistic. Yet the movie, through its gritty content, social themes and documentary style, asks to be considered realistic. If the script included mention of the alien's complete biological safety to humans, then I could condemn their segregation, as I believe the film-makers want me to. Otherwise, I have to side with those who wish the aliens to remain as physically distant from them as possible.

So, if the apartheid comparison doesn't really work, what is there to talk about?

There's a very common catch-phrase floating around today that goes something like "people are basically good". I think we say this of ourselves because the thought of being judged and coming up short is more terrible than we want to deal with. Since the definition of "good" might be debated endlessly, let's assume for the moment that at the very least, a good person will think about and care for others more than themselves. If this is the starting point for a universal definition of "good", then District 9 makes a strong statement against the idea that we are all "basically good". This movie has almost no redeeming human characters. Even the hero spends most of the film serving himself. Every human is after prestige, power, or some form of self-preservation. And although this film is a work a fiction, it reminds us that historically we have shown these traits to be a defining part of our nature. We can strive for goodness, but we've got to deal with our junk along the way.

Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language

Quality: 8.5/10

Relevance: 8.5/10


  1. That new lead actor they found for District 9 did an amazing job i thought - huge character transition through the course of the movie; sometimes it's nice to see some new faces and that was definitely the case with this movie

  2. Couldn't agree more! Hopefully we'll see this trend catch on, though I'm not optimistic.