District 9 is not a nuanced film, nor is its metaphor. Filmed in the slums of Johannesburg, there’s an eerie, earthen verisimilitude to the film’s physicality that simultaneously lends South Africa a depressing gritty realism and expounds upon its alienized social distance. But it is very obviously a parable of human exclusion and prejudice, literalizing the alien in the “other” of race by fitting it into a sci-fi story about actual space travelers. Parable isn’t quite right though – the film is more a vague satire, not particularly pinpoint but workmanlike in its broad-based feeling. Nonetheless, sharp it is not. If it really wants to stake its claim as something more than a bit o’ fun with new filmic toys propping up the seams, it’s on less sure-footing.
If it’s not particularly smart, Blomkamp’s directorial debut at least gets points for attitude. There’s a loose docudrama snark to the film that evaporates before the end but sees the film at its best. In the early stages, we meet Wikus van de Merke (Sharlto Copley), a low-level bureaucrat given a patronage position examining the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. Obviously, the real world implications insist upon themselves, but the film wastes no time in front-loading its futurist situation where an alien species has crash-landed on the city’s outskirts. Naturally, humanity does as humanity does and throws them into abject poverty backed by a sketchily defined system of cognitive stratification (one would hope the poorly defined nature of the oppression outside of the slum is an intentional commentary on sketchily-drawn racism, but it works more like Blomkamp just sort of dropped the ball on the broader political situation in this world). Soon enough, of course, Wikus is prey to his own catlike curiosity and finds himself changing to become…well, you see where this is going.
The earlier bits which most purposefully exude a winking tension out of Wikus’ complete incompetence are the film’s most anxious and delighted moments. We get a real lived-in energy to the film’s mythic storybook qualities, fleshing out the years-going conflict through little physical motions and details even when the film’s screenplay ultimately can’t be bothered to make its conflict work in the world. At least in these early parts, which are drawn-out for effect and approach naturalist non-narrative, the film stays its script to focus on tiny visual cues. The way the aliens, nicknamed “prawns” with a mocking edge, live and get by are as guttural as they are anxious, and Blomkamp’s camera is wise to capture them with an unflinching eye.
So this is a very well constructed film, if not a work as holistically potent and damaging as it thinks it is. At the least it keeps things propulsive and energetic, moving from left to right with aplomb when we might expect it to find itself lost amidst sentimentality and manipulation. Not so, for Blomkamp also reveals late in the film that he’s a boy’s director, and a boy himself, let loose in a toybox of $30 million dollars and having a grand ol’ time. The latter portions of the film explode in rebellious, meaty action to rival any summer blockbuster, except here there’s a real sense of weighty impact, rather than flighty, aimless meandering. It’s gooey and furious, the big set-piece battle that concludes the film, if too grand for the film’s low-key ambitions and not really fitting to the hour that proceeds it. Here too we see Blomkamp realizing that it’s all sort of a glorified B-movie, if one with aspirations that are a tad more scripted and obvious than potent and feeling.
If District 9 is a dreary film, it’s not any kind of nihilism. In fact, there’s a humanist fervor deep within that comes to the core only in its final moments. It wisely does not ask us to like Wikus at any point from beginning to uncanny end – he’s a privileged putz. But contempt for Wikus sours to pity in a somewhat subtle critique of all those “the oppressor finds himself among the oppressed movies” like Dances with Wolves or Avatar, for while those films bask in sentimentality and warming glow, this one intentionally uses horror imagery to strike the fear of god in Wikus at the realization that he is what he once hated so. And the film makes no bones about mocking him for it, even if the snark turns more genial toward the end. Its playful, fleshy conclusion posits melancholy hope more than soul-shocked brittle hopelessness. It’s not afraid to have a little fun with itself, and that, if for nothing else, sees the film move beyond its sometimes tepid preaching and formless, sketched-out plot.