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Friday, August 14, 2009

In an interview with, 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?Chris Stamm, Willamette Week (via)

There's a lot to be said for District 9, but I'm afraid I really don't connect with the reviews calling it the best SF of the year. (Both Star Trek and Moon were, I think, better films, just off the top of my head.) District 9 is good, and there are aspects of it that are very good—I'm especially fond of the gorgeous establishing shots with the mothership hanging in the sky over Johannesburg—but while the South African setting is a nice change of pace at its core this is still a fairly pedestrian alien-refugee story of the kind we've all seen umpteen thousand times before. (And I find there's something a little bit embarrassing in all the reviewers jumping to name apartheid, as if merely being able to recall the word were criticism enough. Apartheid is surely a red herring in all this; the film is much more about directly about the apartheidic horrors of globalization's slums than about apartheid proper.)

The film's best section is its first half-hour, which is presented to us in the form of documentary footage that darkly hints at events to come later in the plot. (During this period I thought it might actually be the best SF of the year.) It's spellbinding; the entire film could and should have been like this. But the film, bizarrely, abandons this structure—it begins to show us nondiegetic scenes which were not and could not have been filmed interspersed with the documentary material, undercutting and ultimately destroying its own formal conceit. Likewise, the film's striking setup—the arrival of a dank, apparently damaged mothership filled with starving insectoid worker drones whose temporary sojourn on Earth slowly turns permanent, much to the frustration of their human "benefactors"—seems largely forgotten in a plot that rapidly degrades into a silly fight over futuretech lasers and a MacGuffin rocket fuel that also (funny coincidence!) magically recodes human DNA. Important questions about global capitalism, the dark side of humanitarianism, and the legally precarious outsider status of the world's poor are raised, only to be abandoned. Even the Eichmannesque unlikeability of the film's protagonist goes essentially unexamined; he suddenly morphs into a conventional hero when the clock demands he must, and that's that.

This film should be great, but it's merely good, because it suffers badly from the aesthetic cowardice that causes mainstream films to retreat from their own best ideas, in favor of banal familiarity, whenever things threaten to get completely awesome.

What I'm saying is, District 9 is a romp, and a fun one—but it's nowhere close to pushing the boundaries of cinematic SF. Let's not lose our heads.