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  1.  (7002.1)

    (This review might refer to a few plot points that you might prefer not to know until you watch the film, although it tries to avoid explicit spoilers, so if you want to stop here, let me sum up: I did not like "District 9")

    A huge spaceship has appeared in Johannesburg, floating over the city. Human beings board it and find incredibly generic-looking aliens who must have taken about five minutes of work from this movie's design department. They look like prawns, so the humans start calling them, of course, prawns. They're malnourished and in need of refuge until they can return to their home planet. However, this proves to be a difficult task for... some reason the movie doesn't bother answering, and if it did it was amidst so much other exposition I couldn't catch it. I think it has to do with the Prawns being an advanced civilization who has mastered interestellar (or possibly intergalactic) travel but are not above acting like obnoxious cavemen when interacting with human beings. So, the aliens start living on District 9, which over the course of the next twenty years, becomes a slum.

    All of this is depicted through a documentary style that the movie uses not as a clever narrative device, but as an easy way of dropping tons of exposition on the viewer without having to bother with things like "subtlety", "narrative economy" or "immersion". In fact, one character tries to convince us of this film's originality by saying (I'm paraphrasing) "this spaceship has appeared not in New York, but in Johannesburg". Director Neill Blomkamp might as well have included a shot of himself winking to the audience and saying "See what I did there?"

    This documentary style could have worked as an introduction, but the entire film uses it -- whenever there is a camera, no matter if it's a camera a character is using, a security camera or a camera mounted on someone's gun, director Neill Blomkamp cuts to it, no matter how ridiculous or out-of-place it looks -- which is particularly painful when it comes to the gun-mounted cameras.

    In fact, Blomkamp's camerawork makes Peter Berg look like a genius. He's apparently not aware there's such revolutionary techniques like tripods and steadicams and instead he uses Parkinson's-Disease-camera for the entire film. Even when the protagonist is talking on a cellphone, sitting down, completely still, simply quiet, not moving at all -- Blomkamp films from a distance, with a zoom -- and the camera shakes so bad the protagonist goes from the center of the shot to having half his body cropped by the right side of the frame and then back to the center of the shot again. Hell, in the scene the restrained protagonist is refusing to kill an alien, an actor actually obstructs the fucking frame and Blomkamp takes his time cutting to another angle.

    The director is also completely lost when it comes to timing -- the movie just speeds forward like Blomkamp is afraid the theater will explode if something intense doesn't happen onscreen for two or three minutes. And I already mentioned subtlety isn't his strength either, but a more specific example is still needed: on the same cellphone scene I just mentioned, the protagonist's reaction to being rejected by a character is trying to cut his own arm off, which, even under his extraordinary circumstances, is excessive to say the least.

    Mind you, the protagonist is a total idiot, and the movie knows this -- after all, he's being hunted by the authorities and yet he keeps using his cellphone (he does refrain from answering the question "where are you?", but I think this is because he did not actually know where he was). However, he is also unlikeable and inconsistent. In the beginning of the film, he's being a dick to the Prawns, but in the middle of it he's shocked by the notion of killing one.

    In fact, all characters in this movie are unlikeable, and the ones Blomkamp means for us not to like, he really means, going as far as to have them laugh cruelly. The most extreme example is when Blomkamp focuses on two of them eating a Prawn's body part and chewing wildly like gorillas on amphetamines.

    (continued in comments)
  2.  (7002.2)
    Because, as it must be clear by now, "District 9" is a very badly-written film. The dialogue is simplistic ("I'm not fucking like them.") and the film's attempts at humor are out-of-place and simply bad -- the scene the protagonist finds out he's been accused of having sex with a Prawn is illustrated by a still shot during a news program, showing him fucking a Prawn out in the open -- and if this is a satire of Fox News or something, it should have taken a backseat to the movie's tone and story.

    But it's not just that -- when the protagonist is captured and becomes a test subject, the scientists are incredibly cruel to him, even though they need his cooperation. And for the love of sheer common sense, how did they expect to perform complicated surgery on him without an anaesthetic? Did they thought he'd stay still while they opened his chest? And why didn't they restrain him properly, knowing he is going through a change that makes him significantly stronger? And for fuck's sake, why is it that after the protagonist is contaminated, the other characters act like this was always the plan? And why don't they go visit the place where he was contaminated, if they're so interested in it? There were witnesses who saw him being contaminated and where that happened, there's even footage of it. And if the protagonist is such an idiot, why was he promoted? Because his boss is his father-in-law? The same father-in-law who, later in the movie, wants him dead?

    "District 9" isn't original either. As mentioned, the aliens are ridiculously generic, a simplistic hybrid of arthropod and human being. That, and the film is full of cliches, with several predictable plot points being introduced in the beginning (the squad leader who will later be trouble, the gang leader who will later be trouble, the alien who will later be trouble, then help, then trouble again). Blomkamp even goes for the cliche of the child-alien liking the protagonist, despite the protagonist being a dick to him all the time. Not to mention the moment the protagonist is about to abandon someone, then regrets it and goes back for the rescue.

    Despite Blomkamp's bad craftsmanship, the film's editing is at least competent -- well, okay, it isn't, it cuts sloppily to several unnecessary camera angles, but in the action scenes it works, making them clear and understandable. But once again, the film sabotages itself with preposterousness, like the painfully stupid moment an alien uses a thin sheet of metal that barely covers half his body to shield himself from a constant stream of bullets -- and it works for him. In fact, Blomkamp thinks that showing bullets hitting the metal all the time makes it more believable, when all it does is to prove the people shooting have a good aim and could easily shoot the alien's unprotected legs from under him. And even more hilariously, when the alien drops the sheet of metal and makes a run for it -- suddenly everyone forgets how to shoot properly! This same alien, in a certain moment of the film, says "I have an idea", channels McGyver and assembles a bomb in under two seconds.

    Even the mecha-armor introduced in the film has been seen before in better sci-fi movies, like "Aliens". And again, they only make the film's paradox even bigger: the Prawns have advanced technology but are not above acting like trailer park rednecks. And even though the huge spaceship floats above Johannesburg for twenty years, literally rotting up there with no way of returning to its home planet, then I fail to understand how the movie's ending is coherent. Do you expect me to believe that McGuffin (the little tube of fluid) is the solution to everything? The ending, by the way, after portraying all its characters as cunts, expects us to feel emotional at the way the film's conflicts are resolved.

    Sharlto Copley is intense as the protagonist Wikus Van De Merwe, but that's all the fast-paced, over-edited movie allows him to be. The rest of the cast is either cartoonishly evil or simply unremarkable. The aliens themselves are well-animated most of the time, failing only when they need to express more subtle emotions -- but in this instance, this movie's cheap budget of thirty million dollars actually works as an excuse, and in all fairness the special effects are mostly convincing. The cinematography, sound effects and the music are efficient as well, making for a technically decent film, at least.

    But really, "District 9" has been widely-regarded as brilliant -- you might think my hopes were too high, and I'll admit I was looking forward to watching it, but no matter how my hopes were, the issues I've been practically listing since the beginning of this review would not have been overlooked. I feel that in order for me to like this film, I'd have to lower my standards. It has failed to make me laugh, tried to use cliches to make me cry (there's even the "Go, save yourself!" cliche), has unimaginative art design, simplistic dialogue, cartoonish villains, preposterous action scenes, an unlikeable protagonist who is stupid AND a prick too, schematic plot structure, badly-paced and disjointed storytelling, poor direction, derivative ideas, several instances of "deux ex machina" -- and it's being considered a classic, apparently. Why? Because it's in Johannesburg, not in New York? Because it was made for 30 million? Because it's produced by Peter Jackson? Because it's Blomkamp's first film?

    It's a mindless, derivative and unimpressive sci-fi flick that in certain moments looks like "Blood Diamond" with a human and an alien.
  3.  (7002.3)
    It had potential, but it was wasted.

    I did like a few scenes,
    like the one where the lead is forced to test weapons and says "BRING BACK THE PIGS! I DON'T WANT TO SHOOT THE PRAWN!"
    . If the lead was more of a human being than a bumbling idiot, and the subject matter was taken seriously and with care, it might have been elevated to "good".
    • CommentAuthorlooneynerd
    • CommentTimeOct 12th 2009
    I agree with the potential thing. It seems to me that they took an amazing Idea from Blomkamp and dumbed it down enough to be palatable to mass audiences. I knew the film had gone to shit when it became more of an action SF space opera than a deep look at Apartheid.
  4.  (7002.5)

    Those promo videos really suckered me in. Why couldn't the actual movie have been more like that?
  5.  (7002.6)
    I agree with the potential thing. It seems to me that they took an amazing Idea from Blomkamp and dumbed it down enough to be palatable to mass audiences. I knew the film had gone to shit when it became more of an action SF space opera than a deep look at Apartheid.

    It's ironic the marketing for the film is clever, isn't it? Placing the "No Humans" warning on bus stops, not to mention the excellent posters like the one above my review, which passes the idea without the need for floating heads or other such shit. Before I watched it, I had my doubts about the movie's direction, some parts of the story where the idea could go wrong... but I did not expect a downright dumb movie.
    • CommentAuthorjustDylan
    • CommentTimeOct 13th 2009
    I agree with this review completely. I'm normally very forgiving of minor plot holes, but these were so egregious as to make the movie into nonsense. Even more disturbing, the cinematography reminded me of Black Hawk Down, and this movie drew a parallel between the aliens and black people--not in a "sci fi uses metaphor to shine a light on our own failings" way, but in a way that seemed to say that black people are aliens and the enemy. At least Black Hawk Down never had a pretense of anything but jingoism.
  6.  (7002.8)
    I actually barely bloody noticed the social commentary in the film, because the parallel is so thin. This is more of an attempt to add relevance to a mindless action flick than anything else.