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.