Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, 2009
Ebert: 3 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
My Official Preconception: "Some kind of grim, dystopian science fiction quarantine drama, I think. Sounds cool. I like grim, dystopian science fiction."
District 9 is a grim, dystopian science fiction quarantine drama that puts its hooks into you from the first seconds and keeps them there until the final scene. It is a movie in which an alien starship has come to planet Earth, but unlike previous generations of film extraterrestrials they come not in fiery attack, nor in a hyperintelligently choreographed Close Encounter, nor even for dilettantish research outing a la E.T. These aliens -- a hell of a lot of them, in a massive, massive ship that ends up stalled in the skies over Johannesburg -- are disorganized and starving. Since it turns out that they do fine with human-style air, water, and food, but don't have human-standard conceptions of good manners, they end up in a fenced-in shantytown that looks very much like real-world urban shantytowns from Mumbai to Rio.
Now there is some obvious social commentary going on in a movie about an underclass being kept in slum conditions, in South Africa no less. Science fiction excels at sociological analogy, and District 9 is good science fiction. For anyone with two brain cells to rub together, this is obviously a movie about how human groups treat each other, yet for a big-budget project it is remarkably non-didactic. It would be a fun film to show to a high school social studies class to see what the brighter students made of it; of course, you would want to make sure to have your permission slips collected and on file, what with the frequent and almost unbelievably moist graphic violence.
District 9 is structured according to, and quietly but remorselessly parodies, two of the most prevalent emergent media forms of the last 20 years: the vapid cable-tv documentary and the first-person shooter. From its first moments -- there are no opening credits -- the film jumps straight into documentary format, complete with screen graphics, the central figure of the documentary talking self-consciously into the camera, and sudden cuts to "experts" who comment on the situation from their desk chairs, backed by their many thick books. When the film eventually abandons the conceit of documentary footage in order to advance its story -- not everything that needs to happen can plausibly happen "on camera" -- the tone has been so well established that it is able to jump into and out of documentary form for the rest of the film without disturbing the sense of veracity.
Now "veracity" is a tricky word when we're talking about a hovering spaceship full of bug-men hanging brokenly in the African sky. Ebert, in his review, points out several concerns that can easily be seen as logical flaws. But one of the strengths of the movie, for my money, is how the extreme situation is simply treated as The Way Things Are by the human characters. District 9, rather brilliantly, is not set in the days and weeks after the great ship arrives; it is set twenty long years later. People in J-burg are thoroughly jaded to the presence of extraterrestrials, and no longer react to their presence in the streets. The organization set up to oversee human-alien relations is the very soul of bureaucracy, a cubicled place where people have long since, you can tell, settled into dull routines and long, mildly unsatisfying careers. There is no sense of wonder or possibility in the relationship between Us and Them; They have become merely a pain in the ass that nearly all humans wish would simply go away. Sure, it's a mystery how that massive spaceship can hang up there in the sky, but it is no longer an especially interesting mystery. It simply hangs up there, just like it has for as long as much of the population can remember.
Now I have mentioned the first-person shooter genre, and I mentioned incredibly moist violence. And, you know as well as I do that the people who make our big-budget films fervently believe that the essence of drama is conflict, preferably armed conflict. It is therefore not giving much away to tell you that the movie builds slowly but very steadily towards much vigorous gunplay with exotic forms of hyperpowerful weapondry. Well, take it or leave it. There's a reason that more person-hours have been spent playing shooters than were spent building all the wonders of the world combined, and it has to do with a quality that usually gets called "gripping." District 9 has "gripping" in spades.
Prognosis: * * * * This movie has something for everyone who can handle repeated portrayals of sentient creatures, including humans, being suddenly reduced to shreds of meat. Thuggish sullen teens and socially frustrated adults can enjoy watching things explode -- though let's face it, most of us enjoy a good explosion or two, don't we? -- while the more sociologically inclined can make as much hay as they want to with District 9's obvious, but subtlely skewed, anthropological analogies and deft manipulation of modern media genres. Cool.