District 9 (2009)

As a genre, science fiction seems to cop a lot of flack. Time and time again, the key point that many critics seem to miss is that Star Wars isn’t science fiction. Star Trek hasn’t been science fiction for over a quarter of a century. Not in the real sense, anyway. There is a real difference between an action film featuring space ships and aliens, and a speculative, allegorical or conceptual exploration of a hypothetical. District 9 begins as the latter, only sadly falling into the former in it’s final third.

Like many works in the genre, District 9 takes humanity’s capacity to deal with the unknown and takes it to its breaking point. The choice of South Africa as the setting for this morality tale is certainly problematic- on the face of it, it’s a fairly obvious allegory for apartheid; deeper than that it can be seen as clumsily engaging with the nation’s modern-day political realities.

The film’s form is baffling. A recurring mockumentary motif is only intermittently convincing (the choice to shoot this on 35mm film rather than a television documentary standard video format is a little distracting), and seems to be partially abandoned when the plot dictates (especially in scenes that feature only alien characters). Yet these scenes that break from the documentary format are shot in the same hand-held style- while this is probably intended to give the film a single, cohesive visual style it feels uneven. The CGI is more than adequate, and inspired art direction in the alien ghetto helps in building a convincing world for these creatures to inhabit.

The script is at times very funny, at others poignant and disturbing, at others sketchy and clichéd. Performances are mostly excellent. Sharlto Copley makes Wikus van der Merwe a far more sympathetic character than he probably deserves to be on paper and Venessa Haywood does a good job in playing the wife, turning what could have been a clichéd portrayal of divided loyalties into something much more human and convincing.

The fawning that this film has received from certain quarters is only partially deserved- it is certainly a daring piece of fiction when stood up against such mind-numbing slush as Terminator 4 and Transformers 2, but it only makes things more disappointing with film’s reversion to action movie clichés towards the end.

While far from perfect, or even great, District 9 is definitely worth seeing- if only to let the studios know that there is a place for this sort of thing in mainstream cinema.


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