District 9

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It’s a rare thing for me to walk out of a movie. I can only remember skipping out three times, which is saying something since I was a film student and had to sit through hundreds of screenings of marginal, odd and foreign films on top of the usual number of recreational trips to the cinema.

I dropped out of Unforgiven due to overwhelming boredom with massive male self-involvement. I’ve left A Streetcar Named Desire no less than five times. (It’s Marlon’s muttering. And the self-created southern drama. Maybe if I were southern it’d mean more. Or if I weren’t already busy with my own self-created northeastern drama.) I can’t remember the third one – I think it was something R and I went to by mistake so maybe it doesn’t count. Let’s drop Fame into that slot. My dad took us to that when we were little and ushered us out after the first blast of nudity. I don’t know what he thought we were going to see. Maybe an Andrew Carnegie documentary?

District 9 joined that motley crew on Thursday. I had a bad feeling going into it: I don’t particularly like sci-fi unless it’s ironic or big Hollywood, in which case it’s BYOI*. From what I read, District 9 also seemed like a tricky set-up: it’s filmed like a documentary, it’s meant to be an allegory, but really it’s an alien action flick. That sounded to me like trying to pass off aspic as Jell-O. The bright green food coloring you used made me think it was a low-cal American dessert but in fact it’s made from gelatinized meat and tastes like what you find at the bottom of a swamp. You gotta know I’m going to have an issue with that, and, lo and behold, I did.

In brief, the aliens arrive over Johannesburg but instead of being aggressive, they’re starving refugees. The South Africans set them up on the ground in – what else? – a refugee camp called District 9 which rapidly becomes a slum complete with little kid aliens digging through piles of garbage, alien-human violence and a lot of weapons-for-catfood bartering. (That last one doesn’t seem to be a hallmark of most slums I know about, but presumably it’s a marker for something less ridiculous like rice or heroin.)

A Blackwater stand-in is assigned to relocate the aliens to another camp and, in the process, one of the manager’s arms is injured and – Sigourney Weaver‘s tank top! – turns into an alien claw which is capable of firing the heretofore-aliens-only weapons the refugees brought with them. Hilarity ensues.

We didn’t leave because the plot was so heavy-handed but because of my issues with violence. It’s not just that I can’t stomach graphic violence, it’s that I have a moral objection to it. To my mind, the more realistic the violence you depict, the greater burden you assume for its effects. Fictionalizing human rights abuses is a messy business: you run the risk of making them less horrifying and more digestible because, “It’s just a story.” The shock value of real abuses – the photos from Abu Ghraib, for instance – is blunted when the public has been fed a no-consequence Hollywood diet of similar scenes. The non-fictional atrocities that happened in the slums outside Johannesburg during apartheid are, needless to say, diminished by projecting them onto subhuman, unsympathetic, catfood-eating aliens.

(Yes, Michael Bay and Co. have collectively killed far more henchmen and villagers and jungle-based mercenaries than Neill Blomkamp (District 9‘s director) has killed refugee aliens. I don’t love that ridiculous and clearly fictional violence either and it presents its own set of problems, namely, “Is exposure to ludicrous and improbable killings the first step toward dulling audiences’ senstivity to more realistic and disturbing material?” but as long as the general reaction to those movies’ liberties with the laws of reason and physics is, “No f’ing WAY!” I don’t think they pose as serious a threat of corruption as the face-to-face violence of films like District 9.)

District 9 has been promoted and reviewed as an allegory, a fiction of a non-fiction. Setting aside that I very much doubt that 90% of the largely young and male audience picked up on the connection to real events because of the vast gap between reality and fiction in this case, that form has a long and respectable history in the arts: if you can’t get the public’s attention with reporting and documentaries, try the multiplex. Fine. But in the same way that a biopic has a greater responsibility and a steeper climb because it’s depicting a real person, so too must a film about real events try its damndest not to glorify the worst elements of the story to reap greater box office rewards. Neill Blomkamp didn’t rise to that responsibility. As a result, District 9 is rife with stomach-turning violence that feels pointless instead of pointed. I didn’t need to stay for the second half of the film to endorse that failure.

So, in case you missed it, that’s a thumbs down from me.

*Bring Your Own Irony

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2 Comments on “District 9”

  1. Erica
    September 6, 2009 at 5:09 pm #

    Aren’t all events BYOI???? At least that’s the memo I got! (Or maybe…..)

  2. Thea
    September 14, 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    Hmm. I see your point, but I disagree in some ways. The story is told from the point of view of the dominant species/class, and so yes, the inhabitants of the slums are sub-human and unsympathetic, as were the actual residents of Johannesburg slums. I don’t think your opinion would have been significantly changed by staying, but when he has to hide in District 9 from his own people, he has to interact with the aliens more, and ultimately, they are humanized. Not all, mostly just the ones he spends time with, but your view shifts to being much more sympathetic with them. And then at the end when he and the ‘good guys’ sort of win, I had a great sense of satisfaction when the bad guys, all human, were appropriately crushed. There is a bit of an epilogue, and yeah, things aren’t really any better a few months down the line, but that’s realistic. I thought that they did a great job of making that parallel metaphor, and that more people than you think picked up on the connection. It was also somehow completely original and totally formulaic at once, which I appreciated.

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