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Movie Review: District 9

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The summer movie blockbuster with half a brain, or the one that suggests its audience actually has one, is often revered like the one-eyed man in the valley of the blind. Especially by critics. The latest Star Trek reboot is a good example of this, as a film that doesn't do much of anything new – in fact it cops a good portion of its plot from the first two original Star Wars movies – but one that supplied audiences with the standard summer-movie thrills minus the usual deadening thud of stupidity we critics would look bad championing.

I personally have never required "that film," and generally just look at summer as my least favorite time at the movies, as part of an increasingly small minority who don't get overly excited about the meal-sized serving of superhero sequels trotted out by the studios week after week for a three month period. Generally speaking, the special-effects-heavy popcorn movies don't give me the charge they do so many people. There are of course exceptions. Some films just sweep me up due to their creator's meticulous attention to detail and their grand scope, a la The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And others manage to straddle the line separating escapist and intelligent entertainment in ways that win me over.

But for every surprise, like Tony Scott's Vertigo riff Deja Vu and the Wachowski brothers' spirited Speed Racer adaptation, there are the countless productions that serve as mere fuel for the action junkie, bereft of both style and substance, and when those two things are lacking, it's hard for me to care. In terms of mere distraction, it's both cheaper and less time consuming to flip on my Macbook's colorful and assaultive screensaver for a few minutes, until I have energy enough to do something more productive.

You can call me pretentious, but I think in order for me to fit that description I would have to be more dismissive towards others' enjoyment of this fare. Star Trek and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra may not be tailor-made to my specific interests, but I don't necessarily consider either to be a bad film. And I certainly wouldn't suggest I'm some how superior to the numerous action fans out there who do get a rush from these movies. That would be pretentious. There has to be something far more trying than mere derivation or unimaginative escapism in a film for me to really get out the red pen. And that's where District 9 comes into the conversation.

Neill Blomkamp's high-concept sci-fi is a film I'm not as apathetic toward. It aims to be the summer's one-eyed man; a film of supposed intelligence for the weary film critics, bruised and beaten by the Transformers and Terminators of the cineplex all summer long. The irony is, despite Blomkamp's obvious ambition and his attempt to elevate the film above the usual summer fare, District 9 amounts to little more than a really messy hodgepodge of contradictory ideas, genre cliches and uninspired execution – one only the blind could enjoy. Still, it obviously thinks it's important, as evidenced in its initial premise which does, admittedly, intrigue: Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson (a long way away from the elves, hobbits and greenery or his Lord of the Rings) construct an alternate version of a time period in the late 20th century, defined by an event involving an alien mothership that broke down above Johannesburg, South Africa. For reasons left comically unexplained, the ship just floats there in mid air, even after the alien race that resided inside it (bug-like humanoids we dub "prawns") are extracted. Enter the titular District 9, the zone the aliens are confined to which, several years into their stay, begins to look like a colorful slum akin to the Rio de Janeiro of Fernando Meirelles' City of God. An apartheid soon follows, as the human citizens of Johannesburg call for the removal of these "foreigners."

All this information is presented to us in a film-within-a-film construct, as a pseudo-documentary begins to take shape in the first 30 minutes, intercut with fake newsreel footage and incredibly unsubtle talking heads interviewed about the alien crisis. At one point, one of these people exclaims, "They could have landed anywhere – New York, LA – but they landed here!" And thus Blomkamp heavy-handedly announces the correlation between District 9 and vaguely similar events that took place in Cape Town, South Africa during the 1970s, when an apartheid regime forced out 60,000 residents and relocated them to "District Six." Likewise, in Blomkamp's film the prawns are ordered by the government to pick up and move to a new location, later revealed to be little more than a glorified concentration camp, and at least at first we're lead to believe the film might center around this politically-charged event.

During this time, we're introduced to pencil pusher Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), our unwitting "hero," who's assigned to single-handedly take on the task of serving the prawns their "eviction" notices. Seriously. And if any prawn refuses to sign the paperwork they're presented, Wikus is backed by a battalion of soldiers with heavy artillery to help be persuasive. It's right around this point that Blomkamp abandons the documentary film-within-a-film conceit of his first act for shaky handheld cinematography, as he employs a more narrative driven approach revolving around Wikus. The aesthetic suggests a first-person perspective realism, but that would defy the film's scope: there are plenty of scenes that could not possibly be witnessed by a documenter, most notably those involving the aliens, alone in their homes. That, and nothing here resembles reality.

Wikus, while performing his task as delivery boy, investigates the home of one of the prawns, and makes a discovery that changes both the trajectory of District 9's plot and the stability of our protagonist's otherwise average life. For those poor souls that still want to go see this thing, I won't spoil what happens; instead, I'll just make clear that this particular development downshifts the film, steering it away from its vague promise and reverence toward a more traditional and largely derivative action movie framework. Its director does, however, stay committed to sci-fi tropes, referencing a half dozen of the genre's true classics (The Fly primarily, and there's a nod to E.T. as well), but never managing to carve out a unique identity for his film. Those claiming District 9 to be a classic itself are either just desperate for a film of quality to manifest within this genre or they're missing the insulting friction of ideologies being presented within the picture. Blomkamp feeds us a finger-wagging lecture and then hopes we eat up his on-screen violence just thirty minutes later. In trying to present both a critique of the injustice with which we treat those different from us (the proverbial "other") while pleasing the frothing bloodlust of American audiences with nihilistic brutality meant as entertainment, Blomkamp discredits his film under the banners of both intelligent cinema and escapist popcorn fluff.

District 9 is more manipulative in its construction than almost any film this year, aiming for liberal sympathy with force in its opening, then catering to the gore hounds for the majority of its runtime with sickening aplomb, and finally working hard to pull the heart-strings with a ludicrous development of inter-species camaraderie in the third act that feels not only entirely unearned, but explicit in its bid for overshadowing the aforementioned nihilism of the picture. By measure of critical and audience approval, this tact worked. But let's say I give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and just assume his vision is muddled, not calculated; he still crafts scenes that display such flagrant indecency without purposeful commentary that, whether this was intended or not, his film should still be condemned. It's particularly telling that in a movie all about racial acceptance, this director stoops to creating ethnic caricatures. There's something of a subplot in District 9 involving Nigerians bartering with the prawns, trading cans of cat food (again, seriously) for advanced alien weaponry. And like so many depictions of Africa's people, the Nigerians here are rendered to be the equivalent of comic-book villains, grinning and evil practitioners of voodoo and other ooga-booga barbary, with eyes bulging out of their sockets. Like the recurring central villain of the film – a tough-talking military general who kills for fun – the natives are cartoonishly one-dimensional, another sign of Blomkamp's inept perception of social commentary.

But most distressing is the cruelty with which Blomkamp treats his protagonist, subjecting him to a series of sadistic psychological tortures. Wikus is experimented on by government scientists who don't even bother to give him a sedative as they talk casually about selling his body parts to different countries; and, to further the shock and exploitation, the sequence is shot largely with close-ups of Wikus' terrified face, in effort to absorb every moment of horror in much the same way Eli Roth and James Wa choose to shoot their torture victims in the equally vile installments of the Hostel and Saw franchises, (ir)respectively. The employment of the close-up here should be seen as an aesthetic crutch, excusing Blomkamp from the hassle of composing a scene in any sort of artful way. This approach isn't new; the 'shaky-cam' style saw application in mainstream cinema as early as 1999, in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's landmark pseudo-found-footage film The Blair Witch Project, and was used to great effect in last year's similar and very underrated J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves.

The difference is that many filmmakers, including Abrams and Reeves and also John Erick Dowdle with his horror remake Quarantine, commit to their style, limiting the scope of their films in effort to experience the story from the perspective of an individual. It's a gimmick, sure, but its application can create a visceral and unique experience that validates the relative disregard for traditional cinematic form. Every woozy sway and skewed angle in Cloverfield serves to create tension, the filmmakers' jerky movement acting as a form of choreography and in effect substituting for traditional composition. In contrast, Blomkamp neither commits to his stylistic device nor uses it for any particular reason. His narrative is otherwise totally conventional, and the pacing of the film doesn't differ from the typical Hollywood formula.

Cloverfield is a good film to compare District 9 to because it's just as analogous – though many people, bafflingly, don't seem to catch the meaning of Abrams and Reeves' film. It should be impossible for any American to watch Cloverfield (shot at the eye-level perspective of a man on the ground, through his digital video camera) and see people running terrified through the streets of New York City from an enveloping cloud of debris, without thinking of 9/11. We've all seen that footage, and the filmmakers (refreshingly) trusted their audience to detect the link between the chaos created in their film and that during the twin towers' collapse. Abrams and Reeves largely succeeded at capturing a sense of overwhelming panic. and more specifically, at constructing a disaster in which the overriding feeling is very familiar: NYC is being attacked by something it doesn't understand. The connection between Cloverfield and 9/11 is never explicitly announced within the film, but it's there for anyone with enough imagination to connect the dots between a monster attacking the city and people we've come to dub as "monsters" who attacked the same city. And it's both the perspective and chosen cinematic form in Cloverfield that make the film's connection between its fantasy and its historical context all the more prevalent.

Blomkamp, on the other hand, says nothing in District 9 through the use of his hand-held camera, and instead chooses to communicate his ideology through that extended opening sequence; a collage of synthetic news footage which begins to seem like less the film's innovative strength and more its cross to bear: leaden exposition establishing a level of political and social relevance the film seems fully incapable of living up to, and eventually contradicts. And that's really District 9's big problem: it passes a hint of righteous ambition off as intelligent execution, and most of you seem to have bought it.

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About Sam C. Mac

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    Because I disagree with his approach to this review doesn’t mean I can’t think Sam is one of the better writers I’ve come across. It also doesn’t mean that he must deny my compliments for fear of them being disingenuous.

    He’s also a great debater and kept his cool despite my snide injections. Impressive and exciting. I meant every word of my previous comment.

  • Don’t see why you would appreciate it when he clearly didn’t feel that in his earlier comments?

  • Just have to say I really appreciate that. Thank you.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    It was a fun debate. You’re an excellent writer. Looking forward to more of your stuff.

  • Alright Jesse, I really have to get on with my life here and write more “reviews.” But this really is revolving around you, and as many valid points as I feel you’ve brought up, there is so much of the bs about me having to comply to your expectations of what a review should be and what it should talk about. And I can’t imagine too many others share that complaint.

    But I did want to touch on a couple things, mainly “Hell Boy II: The Golden Army,” since I actually like that film quite a bit, and disagree with your dismissal of its “character motivation to action sequences.” You are, of course, entitled to your opinion on it. I also have mine, however, and I far prefer the special effects in that film to “District 9” or many others because in ‘Hellboy’ there’s a focus on organic special effects, melded with the computer generated ones – costumes and make-up with some CG monsters. You acknowledge that these are “imaginative and impressive” and deserved their nomination, but that doesn’t make their superiority a fact any more than my acknowledgement of the same does.

    The sky is blue, yes. But when it comes to the arts, it’s all opinion based and when you start to be too self-certain about these things that’s when you get yourself in trouble. I personally don’t like the special effects in “District 9,” and I’m not obligated to, nor am I obligated to mention them no matter what I call this article, a “review” or otherwise. That doesn’t mean I’m right to not mention them and it doesn’t mean I’m wrong – it’s just my opinion. And that’s what a review always is; however technical a review gets, you’re reviewing the arts and it’s always opinion based.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    El Bicho,

    The world revolves around me. Duh.

  • Jesse, your constant harping on what is and isn’t a review is rather a bore, and I am not clear where you got the delusion they all had to please you.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    I forgot to touch on a couple of small points.

    Admittedly, I realize I have been somewhat egregious in one of my points. I had been accusing you of ignoring a great deal of the cinematic aspects of District 9. I still do. Reading over your article again, I realized that you did talk a lot about the cinematography. While I still love Cloverfield dearly, District 9’s shaky-cam style is far more tolerable. You mentioned “there are plenty of scenes that could not possibly be witnessed by a documenter, most notably those involving the aliens, alone in their homes. That, and nothing here resembles reality.” This is another “so what” for me. The camera style implemented is just that: a style. If the cinematography were to change just for those scenes, not only would it be jarring for the audience, but also would only serve to remove you from the experience. The choice of shaky-cam is integral to District 9’s personality.

    This could be considered nit picking your article, but since I find it to be nit picking the film, I have to mention it. “For reasons left comically unexplained, the ship just floats there in mid air, even after the alien race that resided inside it (bug-like humanoids we dub “prawns”) are extracted.” I think this one is simple. It’s alien technology. Perhaps a character in passing could have just said, “We don’t understand why it’s just floating there. It’s alien technology. We don’t get it.” I argue that including that would be arbitrary. I think even the dumbest of film goers would just say, “It’s alien. We don’t know why,” and leave it at that.

    You say that you’re not being pretentious, but you then mention this a paragraph later: “District 9 amounts to little more than a really messy hodgepodge of contradictory ideas, genre cliches and uninspired execution – one only the blind could enjoy.” Just sayin’.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    Any “bad” guy is going to have likable traits. I’m sure Hitler had some redeeming qualities. Because Wikus has a wife he loves doesn’t mean we have to care for him. Personally, that didn’t change anything for me about his character. I still didn’t like him. Also, I don’t think that he has to be admired even at the end. He does a good thing, but it’s more rewarding for the viewer that Christopher is saved rather than that Wikus has a change of heart. Labeling it a “character arc” might have been too generous. It’s more like a character “plateau.” I feel that Wikus’ final decision could be argued as an excuse for revenge rather than helping Christopher. Or maybe now he knows what it’s like to be captured and used, and it doesn’t click until right then. But even in that context, it could still be for revenge alone that he saves Christopher, not because he wishes to help him, but because he couldn’t save himself from capture previously. I sincerely do not understand how you couldn’t consider all of this. It makes perfectly logical sense to me in his character’s progression and motivation.

    Sure, you can approach writing any way you like, especially if you’re not getting paid. Maybe if your “review” was titled differently, because you can’t be for real in calling this article a review. It’s not. If it were, your focus would be on a hell of a lot more cinematic elements or its entertainment value. Perhaps, calling it something more like: “District 9 – Dissecting Apartheid.” In that case, I don’t think I would have ever commented if I knew this article wasn’t going to touch on practically anything cinematic about the film. In fact, it’s kind of odd to me that an editor didn’t suggest you clarify that in your title.

    District 9 takes place in Africa. There are going to be a lot of people that have dark skin. Not all of them were depicted this way, only the villainous ones. Or would it be more realistic if it were the Latin Kings? There were just as many, if not more, dark skinned, good common folk interviewed that didn’t come off as stereotypical or insulting. I don’t see a problem with Wikus being white in this role. In this case, I feel his skin color actually heightens his unlikable character and serves to place blame on all of humanity not just the government of Africa, or people with darker skin color. Perhaps the Nigerian gang lords were depicted a bit over-the-top. So what? They’re not supposed to be likable anyway. Across the board, humanity is to blame in this story, not whites, blacks, or Africa.

    My favorite color is blue. Really, it is. Anyway, I’m going to assume you are not colorblind. You also see blue. Both of us can agree, I hope, that the sky is blue. But, maybe blue is not your favorite color. You don’t like it at all. You think it’s an ugly color. But the fact remains, it’s still blue. The special effects are in fact, technically impressive whether you liked what you saw or not. Get over it.

    I think Hellboy 2 is an awful movie from character motivation to action sequences. I loved the first one. I don’t particularly have a problem with Guillermo Del Toro or Ron Perlman or any of the cast for that matter. What I can tell you is that the special effects and makeup are imaginative and impressive. See, it’s easy. I recognized the good in it, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it. I praised it for what it deserves. And if I’m not mistaken, it was nominated for both its special effects and makeup. If not one, then certainly the other.

    “And what all this really comes down to is your opinion that my complaint matters less than what you perceive to be the more important and successful elements of the picture.” Yes, actually. That is exactly what I’m saying so long as this article is considered a “review” of a film. After all, District 9 is still a film. It’s not a Wikipedia entry on society, politics, and apartheid in Africa. As a film, it must take on certain creative themes/elements that are not possible in other media. Themes and elements which you did not mention. You might as well have been reviewing a book.

  • On Wikus the “piece of garbage” – Again, I didn’t say you had to care about Wikus or that he has to be likable. I don’t like Travis Bickle, but he’s certainly a compelling character. I would argue you’re being even more dismissive than Blomkamp by calling Wikus “a piece of garbage,” since Blomkamp clearly wants you to root for this guy, as he sets up these incredibly ineffective moments of him on the phone with his wife. He gives you that stuff because he needs to have you on Wikus’ side by the end, or else his entire ending doesn’t work because there’s no stakes if you don’t give a crap about the main character. It’s an incredibly manipulative tact, and one of many reasons why a.) I don’t find Wikus compelling; b.) I don’t find his arc at all believable; and c.) I don’t find Blomkamp’s decision to make Wikus an unlikable character admirable because he only takes it so far and it’s ultimately just another plot device in the film. It’s very convenient that Wikus “experiments with a change of heart” right when Blomkamp needs him to.?
    On “When I review something…” – I’m so very happy for you that you have a specific set of banal guidelines when writing a review. I don’t. You can approach writing, especially when you’re not getting paid by anyone, from any angle you like. You can disagree with my approach, fine. But I’m not obligated to say, ‘You may like it because of blank,’ and frankly that’s kind of condescending to both me and the reader. And I try my best not to be condescending or dumb things down for a broader audience. I present my opinions and my criticisms, and you’re right, I don’t always have the reader in mind because that’s damn near impossible – there are so many different kinds of readers out there that to try to appeal to all their tastes would probably dilute your own stance within the review. Maybe that’s the difference between a “reviewer” and a critic.

    “Are there not people a lot like that on our planet? Nigerian or not, there are plenty of opportunistic scumbags that would do precisely what they do in the film, considering similar circumstances.” – I answered this already. It’s not that Blomkamp depicts the Nigerians in the film as “opportunistic scumbags,” but how he characterizes them. Look at the maniacally laughing general and tell me he’s not a cartoon. The west is always depicting Africa’s people like this, which is why I brought up “Blood Diamond.” And I think Blomkamp’s rendering of these people is just as insulting. It’s caricature, exaggerations of stereotypes. It’s bad enough that “District 9” is yet another movie about the plight of the white man in Africa – something I’m entirely sick of – but that much more distressing that the black people we do see are barely even recognizable as people.?
    “Now you may not be a “special effects guy” but there are special effects in District 9, and whether you liked them or not is fine, you’re entitled to that. But, technically speaking, the special effects are exceptional with or without your opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got an Oscar nomination for it.”

    This just makes me laugh. ‘You’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re just wrong. “Technically speaking.”

    “As I mentioned earlier, you are entitled to your opinion. I never said you weren’t. I said you should praise something for what it deserves, but not ignore the negative”

    You chide me for having these opinions and then turn around and say “you should praise something for what it deserves.” That’s just ludicrous and you’re not saying that at all: You’re saying I should heap praise on what *you* think deserves it. You’re being incredibly narrow minded just as you think the film’s entertainment value and wide spread appeal should exonerate it of what I’ve perceived to be damaging mixed messages. Whether we agree on the special effects, the humor, the characters, etc, doesn’t really matter. The central thesis to this piece was that “District 9” ultimately undermines its own cache as a socio-political commentary by reveling in the very nihilistic violence it initially bemoans. In my view, perpetuating that violence as entertainment overshadows many of its modest strengths. And what all this really comes down to is your opinion that my complaint matters less than what you perceive to be the more important and successful elements of the picture. What you’ve been doing is in effect telling me what I should and shouldn’t write about.

    Also, Indiana Jones never spat in the face of spelunkers the way Blomkamp spits in the face of his apartheid analogy.

  • Jesse G. Barnes


    I still don’t understand the point of, well, pointing out that you can see more of the white in their eyes. People of African descent generally share that physical trait. Just like how Asians look one way and Europeans look another. Different races look different, it’s OK. Are you saying that Blomkamp probably directed these actors to make their eyes bulge? I honestly don’t get why you pointed this out. Also, I asked “are there not people a lot like that on our planet? Nigerian or not, there are plenty of opportunistic scumbags that would do precisely what they do in the film, considering similar circumstances.”

    As I mentioned earlier, you are entitled to your opinion. I never said you weren’t. I said you should praise something for what it deserves, but not ignore the negative – and vice versa. District 9 took on many unconventional themes/styles and managed to be very successful artistically and financially. It deserves so much that you didn’t even mention in your review, bad or good. You squashed a handful of points that had little to do with the filmmaking, the characters, the special effects, or the humor. All of these things are in that film. It’s not a book about apartheid. It shouldn’t be judged solely based on that or anything spawning from that. It’s still a summer popcorn flick, not a term paper from Neil Blomkamp. Your critique would be is akin to me hating Indiana Jones because that’s not what real cave spelunkers do. Blomkamp’s apartheid/political plot is a cinematic theme. It’s really pronounced, mostly for aesthetic effect, but it’s still only a theme. You contorted Blomkamp’s intentions and let that shine above the entertainment value of the film, therefore making this an unfair and unbalanced opportunity for a reader to decide for themselves why it’s good for them or not.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    In a way, you proved my point about Wikus (no L by the way). It’s a good thing he was as unlikable as he was. And it’s a good thing you don’t care. That’s exactly the point. He’s a piece of garbage and you shouldn’t like him. Copely and Blomkamp succeeded at this. To another point, I could argue character motivation all day, but I don’t agree here. His actions never seemed out of touch to me. His arc also seemed more reasonable to me because we only see the beginning of that arc at the very end. He fights against his nature for damn near the entire film before experimenting with a change of heart only minutes from the ending. I don’t think this is unbelievable.

    When I review something or tell someone what I think about it, I generally have that other person in mind. I tell them I didn’t like it because of a, b, and c. Then I tell them but this thing, that thing, and the other thing was done really well, or I didn’t enjoy those things, but you might. Quite frankly, I’m sick of reviewers who think their job is to reveal only their opinion and end there without telling the reader it might be worth their time, but it wasn’t for them, or at least leaving it open for the reader to feel that way.

    Now you may not be a “special effects guy” but there are special effects in District 9, and whether you liked them or not is fine, you’re entitled to that. But, technically speaking, the special effects are exceptional with or without your opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got an Oscar nomination for it.

  • First off, I’ll address my mistake: Matt Reeves indeed direct “Cloverfield.” You’re right. This slipped my mind and I should have rechecked. I always associate that film with Abrams because it was his creative vision, and he was producer on the film. So I would cling to my argument that he’s the mind behind “Cloverfield” and its conceptual execution, but you’re correct in saying he’s not credited as director (even though the working title for the film was, as I recall, “Untitled J.J. Abrams Project”). But I won’t try to diminish this mistake because that’s exactly what it was.

    To address your other many accusations, in order: When you say “because the apartheid theme isn’t more subtle shouldn’t matter,” I agree with you to a point. But what I thought I had communicated by now is that it’s not this that really sinks D9; it’s the reversal of the film’s message. The focus on nihilistic violence for the sake of entertainment. I could be easier on a movie that simply is blunt about its analogous nature, but not one that essentially backpedals in the way D9 does, especially when it doesn’t say anything particularly relevant about the apartheid before devolving into a particularly gruesome action picture.

    On Sharlo Copley: I thought about mentioning his performance, but in truth, I didn’t have much to say. As a squirrelly man who’s forced into the mold of this completely unbelievable character arc, becoming an action hero in the last stretch and getting the dramatic ‘I’ll never leave you’ line (paraphrasing), saying this to a prawn he just whacked over the head about 2 hours prior… it’s hard for me to care for this character, that’s my point. Especially when the relationship with his wife is so entirely underdeveloped, so it’s hard for us to feel much for him. And, as you said, he’s an entirely unlikable guy, so why should be care? Not that characters have to be likable, but I think they do have to be compelling, and to me Wilkus isn’t. Copley does a fine job with the material, but that largely consists of maintaining a state of panic and communicating the horrific nature of his transformation. Cheers, he did fine with that, but I think like the movie itself Copley has been overpraised, small resume or not.

    I think I announced at the start of my review that the special effects in a movie don’t do all that much for me, which is why I didn’t go into the specifics of them in D9. But, since you asked, I don’t find them to be nearly as impressive as you say. You mention the “endearing personality injected into CG aliens,” well I didn’t see that. I didn’t gage any expression on the faces of these computer generated beings, so I didn’t find that Blomkamp succeeded in humanizing them, as you suggest. To me the effects in the film were akin to those in a video game, which may be a hackneyed criticism at this point, but Blompkamp’s tendency to drain the color out of his visuals, giving the film an anemic look, furthers the comparison. (Not to mention the “mech” in the last act of this movie, confirming it’s aimed at the “Halo” set.) My point is that the visuals in this film never seemed cinematic, and yet the docu-realist conceit it suggests is so half-assed that I can’t buy it either. To me D9 is an ugly, dark, shaky-cam movie without any real purpose for being this way. As I mentioned, in “Cloverfield” there’s a very specific reason why the filmmakers chose that aesthetic, and they played by its established rules; Blomkamp just doesn’t.

    As for the Nigerians: I’ll address this without resorting to the snideness of your question. The “eyes bulging out of their sockets” is cliche I used to emphasize the cliched treatment of these characters. The eyes do not *literally* pop out of their sockets; they bulge, you see more of the whites of their eyes. I’m doing it right now, and I imagine you could too. But regarding the “racist” remark you’ve brought up. That’s a slippery slope. Racism comes in all sorts of ways, and I think to a point there is a bit of a racist slant to the depiction of the Nigerians im D9. Does that make Blomkamp an all-out racist? Probably not. But I think his treatment of the gangsters in this film, his stereotypical rendering of them as cartoonish and over the top ‘villains,’ is insulting. It’s not the fact that he sees them as ruthless people, it’s *how* he depicts them, in a way similar to the caricatures in Ed Zwick’s vile “Blood Diamond” and to an extent “Hotel Rwanda.” It’s a very western characterization, and in a film about a white man in Africa where most of the black people are depicted in this way, it’s a problem as I see it.

    “Overrated or not, films like District 9 should be praised – as it rightfully has been – so that we can see more risk taking films.” Well you’re entitled to your opinion of course, but don’t be so exclusive about it. I’m not obligated to praise this film any more than any other. You can disagree with my criticisms, but don’t deny me my right to them. I will never praise a film I believe to be as contradictory and unsuccessful as I think D9 is. And to suggest I should just so that “more risk taking films” can be made sounds a lot like what the “Watchmen” scribe said about that film when he was urging people to go out and buy tickets.

    Most distressing of all is your claim that “you focussed exactly on what didn’t matter.” Well, maybe to you, but you also dismiss things you say “shouldn’t matter” and tell me when a film “should be praised” and when that praise is “truly deserved.” Who’s to judge these things? As a critic my job is to communicate my feelings on a movie, not the feelings others think I should have. I think with this review I did that, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t condemn me for not sharing your opinion.

  • Jesse G. Barnes

    You seem to be over thinking this quite dramatically. I do not believe that Blomkamp is trying as hard you accuse him of rubbing the audience’s nose in the apartheid message. It’s such a great film on so many other fronts. Because the apartheid theme wasn’t more subtle shouldn’t matter. You ignored mention of Sharlto Copely’s incredible performance for an actor who has an amazingly light resume. You ignored mention of the breathtaking special effects. You also ignored mention of the endearing personality injected into the CG aliens. Blomkamp was going for a lot more than a fantastic mockumentary on apartheid and succeeded admirably in so many other aspects.

    You say “the” Nigerians, as if every Nigerian in the film was depicted as you said with rather odd mention of “eyes bulging out of their sockets.” What are you talking about? Did they use CG to do that? I must have been in the bathroom when the eyes-bulging people were running around. Are you saying that Nigerians just look like that or that Blomkamp used fancy lighting and special effects to give them bulging eyes because maybe he’s a racist? Regardless of any of that, I know who you’re referring to. Are there not people a lot like that on our planet? Nigerian or not, there are plenty of opportunistic scumbags that would do precisely what they do in the film, considering similar circumstances. Maybe it was the voodoo that pushed it over the edge for you. Aside from that very trivial element, I don’t see how that particular group is racially or socially unbelievable.

    Overrated or not, films like District 9 should be praised – as it rightfully has been – so that we can see more risk taking films. I’m referring, of course, to the risks you apparently missed. District 9 is a very surprising and unlikely success. The hero is virtually unlikable. A good portion of the dialogue is subtitled. Not a single big star to be seen. A gritty, nasty, documentary style approach. All of that and it still manages to be entertaining, fun, and praised by critics and average moviegoers alike. That is an astounding accomplishment. And yet you had nothing to say about that.

    District 9 is a brilliantly made film whether you enjoyed what you saw or not. You focused on exactly what didn’t matter, as if you just had to find something to dislike about it and pound that point into dust in order to stand out from the crowd. Hey, maybe that’s not true. But it sure does seem that way. I understand it’s easy to pick out the negative things, or even the trivial ones, and just drive the knife in deeper, ignoring the praise something truly deserves. What surprises me most is that you loved and appreciated Cloverfield for what, I agree, it certainly deserves. But maybe that’s not entirely out of your character. After all, Matt Reeves directed Cloverfield, not Abrams. Hey, but I can ignore that oversight, as well. You missed practically 90% of District 9, you know practically nothing about filmmaking, or this “review” was specifically a critique on Blomkamp’s use of apartheid as a backing theme, in which case, you unmistakably missed the bigger picture.

  • Like I said, an intelligent person. =)

  • That definitely answers my question. I think we agree on more than we disagree on. The only place where our opinions diverge is on the question of whether the social messaging and violence ultimately serves any real purpose.

    I will have to think more about your point that Blomkamp sets up the idea that treating people badly is not okay, only to let his audience revel in sadism later. That point in particular indicated to me that you had really examined these questions.

    I don’t only like articles that I agree with. I’d never get any more knowledgeable by reading personal opinion affirming pieces that promptrd no critical thinking. Your article really made me think and for that I thank you.

  • Caroline,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I wouldn’t dare dismiss the constructive reaction you had to Blomkamp’s film, but I would argue that I think much of the response this film has generated is the product of projection. Blomkamp lays out ideas that stimulate discussion, but does he take them to any real ends? I think ultimately what “District 9” facilitates is socially-conscious thought from intelligent people, but it doesn’t so much contribute to that discussion as it just gets it going. And that would be at least half admirable, but I feel that the violence-as-entertainment that pervades much of the film drowns out even this inkling of a social message, and I fear people less intelligent than yourself will take away only the kicks they get out of seeing this brutality. And that’s not OK.

    As for the scene we both refer to, I think that the specifics of the scene – the fact that they pointlessly have him shoot a prawn rather than just targets, the fact that they don’t administer a sedative, the fact that it’s shot in tight close-up on Wilkus – reveals, at least in part, Blomkamp’s preference toward getting a rise out of his audience over actually commenting on anything. Which to me is exploitation and thus puts it at least in the realm of the “Saw” and “Hostel” films.

    I hope that answers your questions, whether we agree or not.

  • Your review is thoughtful and informed. I appreciate how you position the film in a larger cinematic context. I have one question for you, though. Even if you find the outcome messy, do you really think that no real social message was communicated? I left feeling really shaken and thinking a lot about the social issues, which makes me think the film was successful in that way.

    Also,in my mind, the experimentation scenes were separated from the torture porn realm by the fact that they were part of what I perceived to be Blomkamp’s larger social message.