My chief regret in watching District 9 (2009) was sitting too close to the screen. A frenetic, gritty, messy, and graphic science fiction adventure, District 9 does a lot of things really, really well, and I’m glad I saw it, but it also drops the ball in important ways, ultimately overstaying its welcome.
Beginning in a realistic documentary format, the film sets a familiar science fiction stage in compelling fashion: a huge alien mothership arrives, hovering Childhood’s End-like over Johannesburg, South Africa. Soon the scientists and officials investigating the situation discover that the ship is filled with impoverished, humanoid aliens living in squalid conditions. An aid camp is established below the ship, but quickly degenerates into a slum, and its presence in the middle of the city becomes a new source of racial — or, perhaps, “specie-al” — friction. To alleviate the problem, an independent military outfit called Multi National United, represented by agreeable-seeming but ultimately repugnant Wikus van der Merwe (the impressive Sharlto Copley), moves into the camp to “relocate” the aliens to District 10 — essentially a concentration camp in the middle of nowhere. The “prawns” (the aliens have shrimp-like faces) aren’t anxious to leave their trash-heap homes, and what follows is a chaotic, relentless, noisy adventure as Wikus morphs from a callous, smiling bureaucrat into…well, a number of things, really.
It’s a visually stunning film, and the early-going documentary sequences are highly compelling as the mysteries of the scenario are elaborated. Wikus makes for a uniquely hateful protagonist, the ultimate distillation of mean-spirited human self interest, and as the crisis escalates, his truly despicable character is put through a stomach-turning ringer. The special effects are uniformly outstanding throughout, the CGI aliens seamlessly rendered, the action sequences for the most part powerfully executed.
But oh, the plot. With all the distracting visuals and impressive film-making technique, it’s easy to forgive the illogic of the early stages, but late in the film — when it morphs from a uniquely grim science fiction fake-documentary into a standard eyeball-bludgeoning action film — the plot goes right off the rails, a truly spectacular train wreck. Suddenly those early lapses, relatively inconspicuous and in service to the film’s theme, are joined by a relentless sequence of illogical human decisions, all tailored for maximum carnage. And, to be fair, also to illustrate the utter awfulness of humanity, the film’s rather ham-fisted theme, and a point long since made, much more effectively, in the film’s first thirty minutes. These early stretches are already visually exhausting, but feel worth the effort of gripping your armrests and squinting your eyes; the second half of the film, though, is pure overkill — dramatically, graphically, and (worst of all) thematically.
Had it plugged more of its plotholes, and — more importantly — made more interesting points, I would have come out of the theater wowed by its superior technique and effects. And really, it’s a hard film not to appreciate on many levels as an impressive visual, stylistic achievement, with a truly unforgettable and peculiar anti-hero at its core. But in the end, I staggered out feeling like the survivor of an assault, dazzled and dazed by its skillful hugger-mugger, perhaps, but without the profound insights the film seems to think it possesses, and feeling somewhat hollow and defeated.