Given the glowing reviews and praise this film have been receiving, anyone who does not follow suit appears as a curmudgeon. So, I feel the need to explain a couple of things before I launch into my review.
First, I liked the film. I liked it very much and expect to see great things from this director. Second, it has only gathered such marvellous reviews because all the other current offerings, especially any other recent sci-fi, are sooooo bad. The vast fields of crap to which we (particularly sci-fi) fans have become accustomed to putting up with means that anything will be praised highly and much more than it would otherwise deserve simply by being not crap.
On to the review:
District 9 is two movies in one. The first half is done in documentary style looking at how the aliens interned in the camp outside Johannesburg (did someone say Soweto?) are treated by the government bureaucracy charged with their welfare. The second is a very standard action-adventure films seeking to defeat the corporate conspiracy, blah, blah, blah, seen it all before. Only one of these films is worth watching.
Using aliens to examine issues of (paternalistic) racism, the white man’s burden and post-colonial politics is nothing new and in many ways this film is nothing more than an update Alien Nation for the new generation. The documentary style and the enthusiasm with which the bureaucrats go about their duties in the alien camp make you cringe in your seat. There is simply no way to avoid the comparison between the humans’ treatment of the aliens and current politics, whether it be the black townships in South Africa (the obvious parallel), various situations in the Middle East or recent Australian government initatives in the Northern Territory. The fact that it’s aliens rather than people makes it a little more palatable and allows for the polemic to be delivered with so much more force.
This first part of the film is really very well done. The cinematography is beautiful. The director has a good eye for detail and is quite skilful at selecting shots to best capture the scene. The actors create for their characters an uncomfortable mix of trepidation and “for the greater good” which is quite infectious.
Then the film nosedives into the mire and morphs itself into nothing more than a bog-standard break-into-the-secure-lab-and-steal-the-McGuffin story which makes irrelevant all the good work of the first half either by drowning it in brass shell casings or by, at the end, showing that no one actually had to struggle for anything during the film as the answer was there all along. Yes, I’m looking at you, sparkly tractor beam.
It’s only the lead actor’s ability which makes the second half watchable. Yet even he cannot make you feel anything for his character in the action-adventure second half. After the documentary style of the first half of the film distances the audience from the characters in order to concentrate on what they do and why they do it, it is impossible to then want the audience to feel any kind of connection with a man who wants to take an alien’s kid away as punishment for not signing a bureacratic form. That the kid in question in the second half turns into nothing more than the main character’s monkey sidekick shows just how far the film has fallen from the moral high ground.
All-in-all, a well-crafted and entertaining film that disappointed only because I could see the gem shining at its heart regardless of all the shit the production tried to pile on top of it.