By Chris Stamm
They didn't come to make war, but they didn't necessarily come in peace, either. These beings from beyond didn't speed through space-time to probe us, to Hoover our brains for food or to establish an interstellar federation. The aliens in District 9 simply ran out of gas on the wrong side of the universe, and they only want to go back home, wherever or whenever that is.
Marooned in Johannesburg, South Africa, on cruel and xenophobic planet Earth, the so-called "prawns"—a human slur that happens to be pretty accurate—actually have quite a bit in common with the earthlings who've shunted them into the filthy slum-city that gives the film its name: technologically advanced enough to skip through the cosmos, but sadly hapless and discombobulated once they lose the map. It is an unfortunate frailty that District 9 itself shares and that first-time director Neill Blomkamp can't quite overcome.
In an interview with slashfilm.com, Blomkamp said he wanted to make a film that "didn't depress the audience and kind of ram a whole lot of ideas down their throat that maybe they didn't feel like hearing." Could there be a more disheartening statement of purpose by a young artist or a more cynical underestimation of an audience's intelligence? Blomkamp's admission of needless compromise is especially baffling in light of District 9's first act, 20 brilliant minutes of faux-documentary dread. It's not subtle, nor is it half as politically astute as Blomkamp seems to believe, but it is a mini-masterpiece of harrowing and darkly funny filmmaking.
But what began as a sharp descent into hell becomes a timid tour of action-film clichés. This is where Blomkamp begins withholding the "whole lot of ideas" we're apparently not ready for. Blomkamp marshals a sheepish parade of barking villains, gray-matter splatter and soft-headed sentimentality. Yes, aliens cry. And yes, those lachrymose bug eyes are somewhat affecting. But no, you didn't pay for a Spielberg film.
District 9's skid into rote convention is matched by a retreat from the documentary conceit that so expertly delivered us into this strange world in the first place. Gone are the dread-spiked familiarity and the hijacked normalcy. In their place is a visual spectacle of hectic ambivalence not unlike every other gutless extravaganza you'll see this summer. Oh, there are guts, I guess, but they are flung at the screen to distract you from Blomkamp's loss of nerve. I have faith that Neill Blomkamp will one day make a film that's a marvel from beginning to end. The question is whether he can muster the necessary faith in us.
We're smart enough for you, Blomkamp. Take your best shot.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
With Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Mandla Gaduka and Vanessa Haywood
Regal Stadium 14