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Brains, Brawn and Prawn: A Review of DISTRICT 9

August 21, 2009

district9_poster-689x1024No trend should ever be trusted, especially not in Hollywood. So-called “genre” entertainment (i.e. sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc.) has always been a staple of mainstream American cinema, but in the last decade the movie industry has become increasingly infatuated with nerd culture. Around the turn of the millenium comic-book adaptations (usually based around superheroes) started earning big money at the box office, partly because of the intense loyalty and engagement of the adapted properties’ fans. Ever since then studio executives have been scouring comic shops and internet forums in search of new material. This approach has admittedly yielded some worthwhile results, but it’s also quickly becoming a form of cultural strip-mining. These days, films based in nerd culture tend more and more to be pointless, self-indulgent or outright exploitative.

Which brings us to District 9, a new film not based on any existing property but still waving its nerd flag high via its extraterrestrial subject matter and the prominent involvement of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. I was looking forward to this movie, but I couldn’t help but fear that it was going to fall victim to the excesses of its subculture.

Thankfully, it doesn’t; rather, it’s an upstanding example of what genre storytelling can be. That is to say, it may be a film by nerds, but it’s for everyone, and although it has flaws, it still puts most of its contemporaries to shame.

The plot revolves around a South African refugee camp full of shrimp-like aliens referred to derogatorily as “prawns,” whose spaceship has apparently stalled above Johannesburg. When the government hires a sinister corporation, Multi-National United, to transfer the aliens to a more isolated area, a well-intentioned but clueless MNU manager named Wikus stumbles upon a mysterious container of alien fluid. The previews don’t give away much more than that, and I won’t either.

Actually, this scene isn't in the movie.  Damn you, viral marketing!

Actually, this scene isn't in the movie. Damn you, viral marketing!

The film works partly because while it is unashamedly sci-fi, it’s also thoughtfully engaged with the real world. Many genre properties are content to rely on generic, navel-gazing storylines about young nerdy men trying to prove themselves, but District 9 uses its premise to comment on racism and the problems facing refugee communities. It’s disturbing to see even the insectile prawns getting abused by MNU thugs, but unfortunately it’s not hard to imagine impoverished humans receiving the same treatment.

The story is also refreshingly fair to its characters, especially Wikus, who is neither a heart-of-gold hero nor a mean-spirited caricature. The viewer (or, at least, this viewer) is constantly torn between scorning Wikus’s obliviousness and sympathizing with the horrible situation he finds himself in. Some of the prawns, including one with the incongruous name of Christopher Johnson, are also given nuanced personalities.

Best of all, none of this prevents the film from being fun to watch. The social commentary, character-driven story and action set pieces work in concert rather than getting in each other’s way, and fight scenes/car chases/etc. are shot in a way that actually allows the viewer to see what’s going on, unlike most modern action sequences.

As I said, of course, the film isn’t perfect, and its main flaw lies in its awkward combination of documentary-style footage and a more conventional omniscient point of view. The documentary scenes, which are gimmicky and seem to exist mainly as an excuse for using a less expensive film stock, should have been eliminated or at least limited to the opening exposition (which is already too rushed and blunt). Also, the screenplay should occasionally be subtler; for example, we’ll dislike the brutish military villain enough without hearing him say, “I love watching prawns die.”

Still, District 9 is encouraging because it shows that genre entertainment can still be thought-provoking, original and well-crafted–and that sometimes that’s exactly what audiences want.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. yupppp permalink
    August 21, 2009 2:40 am

    how bout the sequel? it’s obviously coming (cough, cough, ahem peter jackson). will it be good or will it stink?

    • Matt permalink*
      August 21, 2009 1:48 pm

      “District 9” worked because of its originality, so, to be honest, the idea of a sequel kind of disappoints me. Still, I suppose “District 10” could be good if Blomkamp has a multi-chapter story arc planned out. I’d wait for the reviews.

  2. r_sam permalink
    August 22, 2009 12:11 am

    Much agreed to D-9 being a champion, rather than a victim, to its genre. I’ve always thought of Sci-Fi being at its best when its subject actually ends up being deeply human, despite (and/or because of ) extraterrestrial/supernatural attractions. D-9 accomplishes this, and makes an accomplishment for the genre when it had, for a good while, been needing one.

  3. August 30, 2009 1:49 pm

    District 9 or District 10 sequel in the works! “It’s a very personal film, and it’s a universe and a place that I find incredibly creative. I’d love to go back to that universe.” by Neill Blomkamp.

    Source: http://www.district9film.com

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