The premise of District 9 was intriguing enough that I decided I was going to see it after the teaser trailer and didn’t pay much attention to ads, reviews, or trailers after that point. Even so, I knew a little bit more about the movie going in than I would’ve liked. Basically, anything past the basic idea which is established in the first two minutes of the movie is a spoiler — an alien ship makes first contact with Earth over Johannesburg, and the aliens don’t dominate but are instead forced to live in segregated slums outside the city. (The full trailer gives away a few of the best moments of the entire movie, so I’m reluctant to link to the official site, which plays the trailer automatically).
What I did hear, though, was that almost everybody liked it, and that almost nobody got what they expected.
I’d expected an allegory of Apartheid with a science fiction premise, basically along the lines of the “Can’t you see he’s half-white and I’m half-black?” episode of “Star Trek.” But given a 2009 update, which means: fake documentary footage. I’ve heard of other people complaining that it wasn’t more of an action movie, with more scenes of spaceships and/or people exploding. The actual movie, though, is something rarer and more interesting than either of those: it’s a genuinely original action movie that isn’t stupid.
The rest of the post is segregated into spoiler territory; people who haven’t seen the movie are not welcome.
Even while I was watching the movie, I kept waiting for it to live up to my expectations, to go into Enemy Mine territory, where we’d learn that “deep down, the aliens really are just like us.” But it kept defying my expectations. The aliens aren’t just like us. They’re pretty gross, actually, and the movie doesn’t go out of its way to make them sympathetic.
That’s not to say that the movie avoids all the standard action movie cliches; it’s chock full of them. But where I think the movie is so clever is in the way it uses the cliches for the parts that still work, then ignores or abandons the rest. Evil multinational corporation is part of the premise, and it’s a good framing device, so use it. Just don’t put the emphasis of the movie on bringing down the corporation, because they’re not the “villain.” Unstoppable racist military guy is good as a consistent antagonist, so put him in there, and deliver the primally satisfying scene of him getting his head ripped off. Just don’t present the story as lone hero vs. unstoppable villain.
You can even have the one “good” alien defending his precocious child, complete with the moment when the child says “you’re just like me!” Because it’s necessary to have at least one character in a movie who knows what’s going on. Just don’t have the alien be a completely altruistic sage. It’s okay to have him be a relatively normal alien who’s been stranded on a shitty planet for 20 years just because his spaceship broke down.
The trick to all of that, and in fact the key to the whole movie, is Sharlto Copley as the protagonist. What makes District 9 better than just really well-made action movie entertainment isn’t that it’s a thinly-veiled allegory about racism and Apartheid. It’s that it’s based around a character who spends about 95% of the movie being a total dick. The entire first half of the movie sets him up as the character you’re supposed to identify with, and then pulls no punches setting him up as pretty much an all around loser. And not the clumsy-but-likable kind, either. If they’d shown Evil Military Guy eagerly destroying an alien nest because he likes the popping noise it makes when the eggs explode, then that would’ve been fairly standard action movie behavior. But this is the guy we’re supposed to identify with.
And I kept waiting for the movie to deliver his moment of clarity, when he finally sees the light and goes over to The Side of Good. And the movie kept denying me that. By the end of the movie, when he finally does act unselfishly, I’d already given up on him. I had taken the message of the movie not to be “we can accomplish great things if we celebrate our similarities instead of just cursing our differences,” but “human beings pretty much suck.” Both messages have a lot of truth to them; it’s the latter one that you don’t see a lot of in action movies.
So in the end, it’s an action movie. I saw an interview with Peter Jackson saying that it doesn’t really have an agenda other than to be entertaining, and it succeeds in that — there’s just something inherently satisfying about seeing bad guys getting blown into chunks by laser beams, and a battle-mech doing a one-handed catch of a missile. But it’s entertainment that doesn’t tell you what to think, and it doesn’t present a morass of heartstring-tugging cliches as a substitute for actual thought.