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District 9 (2009)

September 5, 2009

6/10 Jumbo Shrimp

Man, humans are dicks.

District 9 takes place in an alternate reality where an alien spaceship finds itself stranded over Johannesburg, South Africa. Months after they land, they are forced out of their ship by Johannesburg military and are forced to live in a refugee slum sanctioned off from the rest of human society for over 20 years. This is the story of mild-mannered Wikus Van De Merwe (outrageously stupid name choice) who is selected to spearhead a government initiative to go into District 9, hand out eviction notice to the aliens, and move them to a concentration camp of sorts. As you might guess, this is a stupid plan, and things doesn’t go too well for Wikus.

I was pretty pumped to see this movie after hearing surprisingly good things and after seeing it do surprisingly really well at the box office. But not everything can live up to our expectations in life. Remember that, kids; write that one down.

So District 9 has a number of things going for it. It’s produced by Peter Jackson, and even though I’m still not very clear on what a producer actually does despite having had it explained to me on numerous occasions, I think you’re off to a pretty good start if you have the guy behind the Lord of the Rings movies backing your first major directing effort. Way to go on that one, Neill Blomkamp.

Not only that, but it has a very inspired, original premise that plays out like the politically charged bastard child of Starship Troopers, The Fly (1986), and Hotel Rwanda. It also helps that this movie was publicized with a very intriguing trailer that really didn’t give anything away. It’s been a while since I’ve more or less gone into a movie cold without really knowing what it was about, and I appreciated that. Hope that trend catches on.

I’m realizing now that his is kind of a short list of pros, but the one other thing that’s pretty boss about District 9 is the makeup and special effects. The aliens, aptly referred to as “prawns”, look pretty damn nasty, pretty damn believable (even though they might not be the most original looking aliens out there), and their smooth integration with the actors on-screen and vice-versa is pretty damn impressive. The whole makeup aspect kinda relates back to why this movie reminded me of The Fly, and if you’ve seen The Fly, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and why this is a good thing. Don’t want to ruin either movie for anyone who hasn’t seen them, but trust me, shit gets crazy.

And while all those things are just swell, it’s kind of surprising to me how it just doesn’t all work like you’d think it should. Further proof that just because a movie looks pretty, it doesn’t mean jack shit if you can’t tell a good story.

First off, the hero of our story, Wikus Van De Merwe, totally sucks. I can understand wanting to see the aliens fight back and show the humans a thing or two, but it’s not good when you want to see the protagonist get whacked just because he’s being such an annoying, whiny dickhead the whole time. I don’t know if it was the guy playing him or the way the character was written up, but it did not work. Are there actually people named Wikus? Pretty sure that’s a Hobbit name.

Strike two for District 9 is the insano violence factor. Now, I have a pretty high tolerance for violence and gore, but Jesus H. Murphy, this is a freakin’ horror movie and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I was cringing every which way from Sunday during this thing. It’s cool for a bit, then you start wondering why this movie wasn’t subtitled How Many Ways Can You Blow People Up and it gets to be a little much a little too fast. We get it, aliens make some crazy guns.

There’s also this strange sideplot about a colony of Nigerian criminals running a black market inside District 9 that practice voodoo and eat various “prawn” organs to gain their strength. Not only is Nigeria not all that close to Johannesburg, but come on, the voodoo thing is a little much. Unnecessary.

I don’t know, man. By the end of it all, I found myself leaving the theater with a bad taste in my mouth. It gets points for being really intense, for its gorgeous visuals, and its fresh premise, but there’s such an overwhelmingly negative and borderline hateful undertone permeating throughout the entirety of the movie that really just rubbed me the wrong way. I felt so depressed after watching this that I took it upon myself to go watch Ponyo right after just to cheer up.

Guess it’s just another one of those movies I wished I had liked a lot more than I did. But what can you do.

Thanks, Ponyo.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob M permalink
    October 9, 2009 9:58 am

    I actually didn’t think the violence was that horrible. Sure it was bloody as hell, but I got more cringes from Starship Troopers and some of the snuff horror films out there (go see Zombieland for a few gnarly scenes…though it’s all in good fun). It’s not necessarily as bad when it’s as fast as it was.

    I liked the fact that Wikus (which is an Afrikaans name and therefore pretty much restricted to South Africa) was unlikeable and often a whiny, self-serving prick (and apparently all his dialogue was improved, so he gets kudos from me on that). His bit with the alien “abortions” during the eviction made my stomach want to turn even more than any of the violence, so it resonated with me.

    I found the Nigerian criminal bit to be a tad superfluous (nixing that could have allowed the corporate conspiracy to be fleshed out even more), but then I remembered something. One of my dad’s students was from Kenya, and she used to tell this story of a tribal belief that if an AIDS-infected man has sex with a virgin girl, he would be cured of his disease. So, I drew a cultural parallel between that and the ridiculous beliefs the criminals had.

    Yeah, it was a depressing movie, but Children of Men still depressed me way more, and both are in my top 10. Between those and Battlestar Galactica I guess I have a thing for really depressing science fiction…

  2. Kevin permalink
    February 22, 2010 11:07 pm

    I totally agree Aiden. I actually would have rated this movie lower because of the reactionary attitude I’ve developed about it because so many people seem to love it for some reason and I don’t think Peter Jackson is really all that great (take the LOTRs trilogy off his resume and its suddenly pretty crappy).

    A few things I really hated about it.
    1. Deus ex Machina. How many times can the writers put our hero in a completely hopeless situation only to have a miraculous solution magically come out of nowhere (at least 4 times apparently).
    2. I’m with you on the violence. It was so over the top and ridiculous. One dude blowing up is kind of cool, 30 times is unnecessary.
    3. Wikus doesn’t grow at all in the film. Like you say, he’s a dick the whole time. You’d think the writer and director would want to show him as coming to understand the injustices of the aliens etc. But NO! The whole time he only cares about himself. At no point is this clearer than in the totally absurd scene where he strikes his “friend” with the 2×4 (which serves absolutely no purpose, except to erase any empathy the audience has toward him and make the movie 20 minutes longer to only have the EXACT same ending it would’ve had anyway).

    4. And to respond to Rob M… The scenes like the abortion scene were simple audience manipulation at its finest. Shallow garbage meant to get a reaction.

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