Sunday, August 23, 2009
With an A+ ad campaign rocketing the film into the sci-fi nerd canon, it's tempting to dump on District 9 a lot more than I normally would a modestly budgeted foreign directorial debut with no stars and great special effects. Then again, much of what's wrong with the film can be chalked up to its makers' awareness of the American marketplace. Based on Alive In Joburg, a short mock-documentary about aliens arriving in '80s South Africa, where they're forced to live with the black population, District 9 keeps the location and time while removing all references to the nation's racist policies. There isn't even an aside suggesting the aliens helped make the transition from apartheid easier - after all, how many in the theater would even know what apartheid is?
The rushed sum-up of the first 20 years of alien interaction offers plenty of other "refrigerator moments" (Hitchcock's term for specious details you don't realize until think about the movie at home). How can aliens and humans understand each other while never ever speaking the same language? How could humans know so little about the creatures' goals, history, etc after so long a time? Are we really to believe the population of 1,000,000+ aliens are a bunch of clueless, scavenging bottom-feeders except for a solitary scientist with a cute kid and a spaceship in his basement? And if you spray an alien with gasoline, do they start turning human?
Had the movie maintained its faux-documentary origins, many of the issues could be written off as the ignorance of the documentarians (how would they know how just how few of the aliens were behind an uprising?). But the film gradually abandons the POV shots and security cameras, shifting into standard action movie omniscience. It's possible they could have worked tender family moments, tearful phone calls and a Defiant Ones climax successfully into a faux-doc, but why risk the device distancing audiences by asking them to think and accept ambiguity? Better to use the talking heads and "found footage" as 21st century pepper for a rewrite of Alien Nation.