Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Help Me Understand District 9

HEAVY SPOILERS THROUGHOUT

I feel like I'm missing something. In a summer that brought us such mid-numbing, popcorn crap like Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation, and Transformers 2 (all of which I turned my brain off an enjoyed), I can understand why District 9 rises above the crowd. Unlike most of the movies this summer, even Star Trek which rocked, District 9 had some real thought behind it. I can fully understand why people are swooning over it. But this movie was far from the best movie of the year. It's far from the best sci-fi movie of the last ten years, as some have said. Frankly, I thought it was just ok.

You can say I'm just overthinking it, but this list excludes all the nit-picky stuff like, "How can these clearly sea-creature-based aliens survive in our atmosphere?" That kind of stuff I don't think about, and even if I do, I brush it aside as leaps of logic necessary to tell a story. These are the things that truly bothered me about District 9:

1) Their attempts to make the messages about apartheid not so heavy handed resulted in a movie that makes no sense to anyone that knows anything about apartheid. It's not an allegory for apartheid because the situation is completely different. In reality, the blacks of South Africa were the native population and the whites came in and oppressed them. In the movie, the South African government took the aliens off their ship to help them, then eventually turned on them. I get that the aliens got out of control, but so soon after apartheid, there's no way the people of South Africa would react like this. Many of them still remember apartheid, and like how the Germans view the Holocaust, it would be such a pock on their collective psyche that they would never let this happen again so soon. In the original short film, which I just watched, it all takes place DURING apartheid, which actually makes sense.

2) The movie is not true to itself. At its core, District 9 is an action movie, as evidenced by the third act, which is all violence, no weight. As much as it's dressed up as a thinking man's action movie, it's just a regular action movie with a thin veil of thought. Not a single one of the major issues of the film gets resolved. The end of the movie focuses so much on the action, we never get a resolution on anything really. I'm all for ambiguity, but there's a difference between an ambiguous ending, and an ending that doesn't resolve anything.

3) The first act spends so much time with them handing out these eviction notices when they should have spent more time setting up the world. The aliens have been here 20 years, how did we get from welcoming them and saving them to oppressing them? Clearly, humans and aliens have the ability to communicate, how could we not, in 20 years time, teach them how to properly act on our planet? What did we try before the ghetto? Was this a last resort, or did one day we all just decide to throw them into District 9?

4) A list of loose plot threads and missed opportunities:

a- I was frankly pissed off that when Wikus stormed MNU, he didn't have the chance to confront the scientists that tortured him. These scientists just got to get away with being evil?

b- No one but Wikus sees how horrible District 9 is. Yeah, eventually, Wikus' buddy uncovers everything, but he could have done that whether Wikus turned into an alien or not, making the big resolution of the film not even remotely related to the story.

c- MNU's goals were far too shallow. Weapons? That's it? This is literally a multi-national corporation, and all they want from the aliens is to unlock their weapons technology? Why don't they have teams of scientists working with the aliens to go through the mother ship and learn the diverse technologies?

d- How did a ship with barely enough power manage to stay hovered over Johannesberg for 20 years?

e- How did their fuel turn Wikus into an alien? Do they all look the way they look because of exposure to this fuel? If this fuel has just been lying around for 20 years, why has no one else been exposed and transformed into an alien?

f- They tell us prawn is a derogatory term, but then never tell us what to actually call them. If prawn is derogatory, wouldn't it be like the n-word to them, and subsequently wouldn't the aliens react appropriately to being called prawn?

5) Could the aliens and humans communicate with each other or not? In the beginning, Wikus confronts Christopher with an eviction notice. Christopher actually reads it and points out the legal points of said contract. Wikus reacts like Christopher's just being difficult like the rest of them. He doesn't even acknowledge that this stupid alien has so quickly picked up on the fact that what they're doing's pretty illegal. That led me to believe Wikus didn't really understand their language. But then, once he teams up with Christopher, suddenly they're easily communicating. Writers, seriously, you can't just change the facts when they're convenient.

6) Why didn't the aliens, with their clearly superior weaponry, just rise up and demand better living conditions? Wikus, with his one gun, broke into MNU and took on a clearly well-trained military unit. I get that 20 years later, they've sold their guns for cat food, but how did they ever let themselves get subjugated. You can say they didn't rise up for fear or reprisal, but they clearly establish that the prawns are just the dregs of society, none of which really think globally, so why wouldn't they just grab a gun and demand the living conditions they want? Normally, this would be the sort of thing I'd just let go, but the weapons are such an important part of the story, I can't just ignore how they half-handled the issue of guns.

7) The violence was wholly unnecessary. Really, my main problem was the gun that made people explode. I'm all for deplorable violence, but if this is supposed to be a thinking man's action movie, why is the violence so explicit?

In conclusion, this is what I think happened. The ending of the movie was supposed to be that this ship was a test for the human race. These aliens send a ship full of refugees to a planet and see how the dominant species treats them. The ending was supposed to be another ship coming and telling everyone what assholes we are and warning that they're coming back to destory us. Then South Park did the exact same thing (with the pine-box derby racer episode) and they realized Matt Stone and Trey Parker stole their poignant ending. They couldn't come up with a more meaningful ending in time, so they cobbled together what we got.

Am I just completely off my dot here?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Elle Rowe said...

I'm surprised you didn't further analyze cat food as currency. Or was that the ONE thing about the movie you actually liked? Just kidding... It definitely provided for comic relief though. What about the husband/wife, father/child plot lines? If I had one complaint about the otherwise brilliant movie, it would be the disavowal/avowal of the family sub-story seemed a little forced. All in all, I loved this movie. Shows what you can do with a limited budget and excellent story.

August 18, 2009 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Daroff said...

I decided to just ignore the blatant racism. I can't just pick over everything.

This movie two me was two disparate things: action movie and social commentary. The action movie delivered, but the social commentary just never lived up to the promise. Normally I wouldn't be reading into it, but the movie begs you to read into it, and I found nothing below the surface.

August 18, 2009 at 4:00 PM  
Blogger RoyTheBoy said...

As someone who loves the movie here is my response to your well thought out entry.

let me start off by saying I love movies, I see almost a movie a week. At this point in the year I have seen 38+ movies (not including movies I'd seen before) and I have no intention of slowing down. I see a lot of crappy ones as well as great ones and I tend to be a harsher critic because of how often I see movies.

With that out of the way, I adored District 9.

So. To answer your comments point by point.

1) I personally felt that this movie was more about racism then apartheid. Although it does give some hints to it the overall message seems to be that racism and harmful treatment of those that are different is wrong.

2) I really enjoyed the ambiguous ending because of the style of filming they chose. It was meant to be more of a documentary of a specific event. Although they certainly filled in the gaps when the cameras weren't there, the whole idea was more just a short moment in time. Since the people don't know what happened, the movie is forced to end not knowing.

3) They answer this question in the intro for the film. We save them and place them in a temporary shanty town. As public opinion switches to not caring (see: Katrina and the parts of Louisiana that are STILL not fixed) instead of integrating them into society the humans just leave them there to rot in this shanty town. Also the aliens being in Africa wouldn't help the situation as the majority of the world doesn't care much what happens in Africa.

August 18, 2009 at 4:31 PM  
Blogger RoyTheBoy said...

4)

a) I believe he does kill the main scientist (i could be wrong) and if you remember he didn't want to kill anyone. In fact he lets a bunch of scientists get by him and doesn't kill anyone until he gets shot at (at which point he starts using the gun like crazy). Even though he got the crap beat out of him he didn't want to be a murderer until he had to.

b) Wikus didn't even really register how bad it was until the very very end of the film. It took the people trying to kill him multiple times and him back stabbing the aliens multiple times to start to change his racist mind. Up until he turns around to help Christopher he was just as hateful to the aliens as everyone else.

c) I think it's a lot less shallow if you consider how weapons manufacturing actually works. There is a crap load of money in it and almost none in space exploration. Especially once the human consensus is "We don't like the aliens" why would people want to explore more of space? also you are stuck with the U.N. most likely bickering about who "owns" the space ship and who gets to investigate it. And the aliens all seem to be too stupid to know how to use the space ship anyway (I'll expand on this more in a moment).

d) I'd agree with that one but at the same time it didn't bother me. We don't know that the ship is out of power we just know it doesn't have fuel to go into space. It could have multiple power sources for the different functions. Also I get the impression that the special fuel was more for hyper-space travel.

e) I believe this also falls under the "documentary" excuse. We don't know because the people who created the documentary don't know. Christopher was probably the only creature on Earth who knew anything about the fuel at all.

f) In mark twain the word nigger and negro is used constantly when referring to blacks. And they just take it as is because that is what they are called. It is derogatory but it's also their "lot" and at this point there has not been any sort of alien revolution to cause people to become more PC

August 18, 2009 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger RoyTheBoy said...

5) I kind of wondered about this a little bit as well. But then again I'll give them some slack on this one because it's obvious that the two can communicate with each other. I think it's more that Wikus wasn't paying attention to what Christopher was saying. Christopher would respond and instead of listening Wikus just said, "yeah right whatever sign it." and when Christopher started to react to the point where he was forced to take notice they threaten to shoot him. I would say it's not that he couldn't understand him as much as he just wasn't paying attention. He also makes note that "this is a smart one." and then continues to talk to him like a degraded child.

6) Because the aliens are stupid. This is referenced to several times throughout the film. The aliens that survived, for some reason, are the lowest of low in their alien society. For instance when the leader of the gang that eats the Alien tricks that one who sells him the Mech so his friends can kill it he mention that they always fall for it and how stupid they are. It doesn't seem that these aliens even really know how to organize themselves. We also don't know how much weaponry they have. It could be a very small amount. In fact as far as we know, what's seen in the movie could be the majority of their weapons. And even if there are more, except for Christopher, it appears that none of them had the where-with-all to really realize that they COULD have a better life if they organized and demanded sovereignty.

7) I liked the violence, I thought it was cool. Probably a little excessive but I had fun. I think we'll just disagree on this one because I don't believe it lessened the impact of the intended message which I would say was, "Racism is bad, slums are bad, etc"


Personally I really like that the ending was open-ended. However I liked it a little less when I was told they did that so they could make a sequel (District 10). If that was in fact the case it's a bit more of a disappointment.

I could see why these things would bother you but in the same respect I hope my responses give you a bit better understanding of why people were not bothered by those same moments.

-Alex Humphrey

August 18, 2009 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger Karmen and Antonio said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 26, 2009 at 7:11 AM  
Blogger Karmen and Antonio said...

We (my wife and I) just saw the film last night, and we have to agree with Adam on many points. People absolutely loved this movie, and there are some things to love, but there are more things to just "like". We thought the movie to be wierd. Also, this movie reminded us a little of the Dark Knight: a lot of hype, and yes, a more than ok movie, but is it really that good???

Also, in terms of apartheid being recreated, I have to say I was surprised the aliens were being treated so badly, especially by the Black South Africans. I would have expected some sort of understanding. Why were they being exploited like that? They were being murdered and studied, behind closed doors. I thought it was ridiculous that all we wanted to learn was how their weapons worked. What about the hovering ship staying put for 20 years? Don't we care about that? 20 years and we only care about guns? C'mon.

As far as understanding the technology, I think the only aliens who knew how anything worked was Joshua, his friend (the one that was shot in the head), and Joshua's kid. I wouldn't call the other aliens "stupid" but just normal average aliens, that were just along for the ride.

Many holes in the film, many implausibles, but fun. Definitely not the best this summer though.

My questions:

1. Where were the humans who were fighting for alien rights? It seemed as if all you heard about was people not liking the aliens.

2. Where was the media exposing conditions in the ghetto? I was expecting Al Roker there at any moment doing the weather in District 9. I'm half kidding, but still there should have been cameras on the events all the time. Seemed like the biggest news ever, and it was played down by a corporation.

August 26, 2009 at 7:27 AM  

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