“District 9” was released seven years ago to critical acclaim. Much of it was well-deserved. Director Neill Blomkamp had managed, in many ways, to fulfill the promise of the high concept science fiction that came before him. Movies like “Blade Runner” and the lesser known “The Quiet Earth” proved that science fiction could be an important, and culturally reflective genre.
“District 9” seemed poised to reinforce that idea. The first two acts are incredibly strong. Intimate character moments and powerful performances abound. But in the third act, everything falls apart. Upon rewatching, it’s clear that the movie suffers heavily for that.
In an alternate version of 1982 Johannesburg, South Africa, an alien ship docks over the city. Inside, malnourished aliens, nicknamed “prawns,” are dying in droves. Twenty-eight years later, they are relegated to a slum called District 9. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, “Hardcore Henry”) is sent there to relocate the aliens. He gets a mysterious canister from an alien, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope, “Spud 2: The Madness Continues”), that infects him with a virus. Slowly, he turns into the alien he is meant to relocate.
Thanks to Copley’s excellent performance, Wikus comes to life. He’s an idealistic Afrikaner bureaucrat with problematic views. His xenophobia leads him to a dark place, one that forces him to face what he’s done and who he is as a person. It’s a classic character arc, but Blomkamp imbues it with new meaning. There’s a sense that Merwe is paying not just for his own actions, but the actions of his ancestors.
It’s a politically and socially loaded narrative. For the first two acts, it’s a relentless commentary on colonialism. Those big ideas could have, realistically, carried through. Sadly, they do not. In the final act, “District 9” becomes a sadly generic and disappointing shoot-em-up with little to say. Its innovative beginning gives way to an all-too-familiar end. There’s bloodshed and carnage, with Wikus at the center, but it’s simply bad guy versus good guy. The social and political weight that Wikus’ character carried in the first act is lost. He becomes the sympathetic action hero rather than the morally gray, complex human being he was in the beginning.
It’s for this reason that “District 9” suffers. While the last act is well-shot, and satisfying in a superficial way, it simply falls short. The world and character building of the beginning is thrown out. Wikus becomes an action hero, fighting the villainous Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar, “Blitzpatrollie”). Any moral ambiguity is thrown out for cinematic fireworks. Sure, it’s an excellent action sequence, but it doesn’t belong in a movie with the promise of “District 9.”
Title: “District 9”
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Release date: Aug. 13, 2009
Country: South Africa