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August 31, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»scifi

District 9

Shorter District 9:

Sure, we could have done something thought-provoking with our premise, but it was that or the giant robot shootout. The choice was clear.

Nobody doubts director Neill Blomkamp's technical chops, or his gift for visually juxtaposing science fiction elements (robot policemen, aliens, mecha) over footage of his native South Africa. It is, however, unclear that he knows what it actually means when he does so. District 9 betrays a lack of insight--but just as much, a lack of interest--in the implications of his special effects.

Arturo R. Garcia raises several valid questions at Racialicious, in the brilliantly-titled post Shrimpin' Ain't Easy:

Why is [head alien] Christopher so much smarter than his fellow refugees? How could he be the only one trying to find a way out, or to know/care enough to clothe himself in a 'human' manner? And, if humans and Prawn are able to understand each other by the time the 'footage' is released, why did the documentarians - because that's how the first half of this film is framed - exclude interviews with any of the aliens in favor of black South Africans telling us how threatened they feel, and white South Africans denigrating the species as a whole?

And fellow commentator Nicole Stamp is more blunt about the film's use of stereotypes:

Why can't the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It's lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn't even make sense.

The portrayal of the gangsters bothered me for another reason. As I was sitting in the theater, when one of the "documentary" interviews comments on the Nigerian crime syndicates, a chuckle went around the audience. The implication was pretty clear: for Americans, Nigeria means spammers and criminals. Three cheers for international stereotyping!

But ultimately, I found District 9's problems to be rooted less in racism and more in a reluctance to engage. Despite being set in South Africa, it's not really an apartheid movie. Despite dealing conspicuously with refugees from outer space, it's not a post-war movie. Nor is it a first-contact movie, or a film about immigration and cross-cultural boundaries. Its goals are modest: to be an action movie, and a showcase for an admittedly impressive set of special effects.

To some extent, this might be preferable to higher ambitions but less success. Executed badly, movies in many of these subgenres are lucky to be hackneyed, if they're not even more offensive than what they decry. From that perspective, it's tempting to absolve Blomkamp for his film's toothlessness--although I think no-one can realistically argue that we live in a post-racist society, it's also hard to say that we need to be told, once again, that apartheid was a bad idea.

Then again, to give him that pass is to treat science fiction simply as a way to rehash simple object lessons from history--a failing often embodied by Star Trek's well-meaning aliens-as-minority trope, which is rarely flattering to anyone involved. In the last few years, we've seen some great sci-fi that uses artistic license to examine political questions (both new and old) from interesting directions: BSG, Torchwood, Pan's Labrynth, Children of Men, The Dark Knight--although they range widely in subtlety, intelligence, and complexity, these movies are undeniably engaged.

District 9 is not. While social redemption might be asking too much, the film is notable in that it hardly ever, in the first half-hour or so--and never after that--bothers to draw a comparison between its South African setting and the alien segregation that theoretically drives its alien-buddy-cop plotline. Nor does it consider the other parallels--colonialism, technological exploitation, literal class warfare--that might be drawn. In fact, by the end of the movie, the status quo has been largely upheld. The resulting experience feels like a bit of a let-down. Given such a compelling setup, you want to say, this is the best you could do?

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