When aliens immigrate

DIST9_TSR_1SHT_3District 9
Neill Blomkamp, South Africa / New Zealand, 2009
Viewed on Sony 4K digital projection, Aug. 15

The original Star Trek series was both celebrated and mocked for its sometimes ham-fisted but usually well-meaning use of “aliens of the week” as thinly veiled allegories against racism, the Cold War, and other such things. The “alien-as-social-problem allegory” may not have made its way into J.J. Abrams’ excellent film reboot, but the late-summer release District 9 seems to be taking up that flag instead.

Of course, there have been many more “influences” between the original Trek and this flick; Alien Nation also portrayed aliens as unwanted immigrants (the word “alien” is used both ways, so it’s hardly a stretch), and while its aliens were a bit more Trek spin-off, the aliens here are a bit more like the Alien series.

Yet despite all the thematic familiarity, this film is in may ways quite novel and disorienting. Of course, avoiding the traditional Hollywood pitfalls doesn’t automatically lead to a great film, despite what most of the critics are saying, because the “disorientation” is both positive and negative.

On top of that, there’s the mockumentary, low-quality video style of the piece, which never quite makes sense (whose viewing is the footage supposed to be for exactly) and is also gradually intercut with more film-like scenes of events that weren’t captured on camera, until the point where the more traditional type of film completely takes over (of course, it’s not film, it’s just better quality digital video with more deliberately-professional cinematography). As you might expect, this just leads to an incoherence of tone.

And finally, it’s important to understand that almost all the people in the film, human or not, are largely despicable, whether as groups or as individuals. In its attemp to cope with the space alien influx, the South African government ultimately cedes its responsibilites to a sinister multinational company (it has the word “multinational” in its title, which is a bit much) for which the incompetent protaganist works. Yes, as one might expect, the events are filtered through a white protaganist, but not only is he definitely not the hero (and usually quite insufferable), but he is, as an Afrikaner like the director, himself an unfamiliar “other” for American audiences. Except for one key exception (perhaps the film’s greatest weakness), Blomkamp seeks to avoid the audience identification we expect from Hollywood films. As the (inconsistent) camera views remind us, we are spectators, or voyeurs.

The problem is that the central allegory is, despite many instances of shocking cruelty by the corporate militia, surpisingly not that novel or challenging; it’s definite not as strong of an indictment of immigration policy as, say, the more literal but also semi-futiristic Children of Men. It might seem unfair to judge the quality of District 9 on explicitly political grounds, were it not for the fact that Blomkamp practically insists that we do so. I’m impressed that there’s no American character or clearly heroic (white) human, but I still think that Blomkamp needs to figure out what his message is.

Some may object to how blacks are portrayed in the film, and I think Blomkamp at least tries to cover himself on this front (I’ll withhold judgment on his degree of success), Black South Africans tend to play background roles in this film, but are present enough to indicate that they are complicit in the mistreatment of the ETs. There’s also a Nigerian criminal syndicate thrown into the mix; they ultimately emerge as competitors with the mulitnational in terms of exploiting the space aliens. As I said before, almost everyone comes out looking pretty bad. Blomkamp is more interested in his allegorical “Others,” but the aliens themselves live in squalor and seem disreputable.

District 9 is certainly a valid effort, one that I enjoyed to a reasonable degree, and it’s definitely not more of the same, but I can’t really recommend that you pay today’s ticket prices for it. Video production that it is, it probably belongs on your home screen, and indeed many may prefer to see a much smaller version of the somewhat-gory explosions found in the movie.

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