For all the rave reviews Neill Blomkamp's District 9 received, on a first pass I found it engaging but vaguely disappointing, particularly as political allegory. A great premise and some clever script writing gives way to a third act that morphs into vintage Michael Bay-styled shoot 'em up and undermines the thought-provoking qualities of the first two acts.
First the upsides... and there are plenty. Visually, it's stunning. The CG integration is almost transparent and the aliens are repulsive and creepy. The lead actor played by South African Sharlto Copley is very good. He plays a character who's a combination of Kafkaesque-nightmare bureaucrat and bubbling idiot. Without giving away the plot, he is charged with the impossible task of moving an impoverished alien population of a million+ away from Johannesburg to a remote encampment several hundred kilometers away. The South African setting is a welcome change from traditional Euro/American framework of most modern science fiction. The underlying themes of race, displaced populations and man's capacity for cruelty are front and centre in District 9, admirable and unusual for a genre picture, but it's hard to find the moral centre and therefore the point of the film without first understanding the political context that Blomkamp is working under. An hour of Wikipedia research into modern South Africa later, I rewatched the film with a more up-to-date understanding of the issues facing the region today and it plays like a different (and much better) film on a second pass.
So it comes down to this. You can have great fun watching District 9 as a campy straight-up Sci-Fi with loads of gore and nasty black humour ….or you can view it as a complex allegorical treatise on modern race relations and humanity's unending appetite for self-destruction.
In order to discuss the deeper themes plumbed in District 9, a basic understanding of the plot's start point is necessary. In documentary/newscast flashback, we told that a massive alien ship arrived over Johannesburg in 1982 and hovered some 1000 feet above for over two decades. Why they came and how they became stranded is never explained. A mission is mounted to enter the ship and it is discovered that the aliens inside are in dire straits. They are starving and apparently unable to provide for themselves. The authorities make the area in the vicinity of the ship a holding compound for the visitors, where they feed and provide for them: District 9. They are fenced off from the rest of Johannesburg's population and detained in the squalid conditions of a shanty town. They are surrounded 24-7 by the military, ostensibly for their own protection but actually more out of fear. This fear is seemingly justified as violent clashes between the aliens and the human population begin to increase, leading to a decision to relocate the entire alien population, some 1.2 million, to a remote area 250 km. from the city. This is where the film opens.
A Catch-22 exists in cinema when it comes to dealing with matters of race. It's nearly impossible to write a script that delves in any substantive way into the issue without stirring up counter charges and claims of racism, a dilemma that certainly complicates a deeper reading of BlomKamp's script. Almost by definition, discussions about race are contentious - a subjective topic that more often than not divides opinion depending on the viewer's perspective. As a result, most movie scripts end up skirting the issue, avoiding it outright or offering up overly-simplistic examples where the lines are clearly divided along the good victim/bad oppressor theme. District 9 may be something of an exception to this rule. On the one hand it seems to be wearing it's rather obvious political stripes on it's sleeve but upon closer inspection it may indeed be saying something rather more profound and subversive.
Intentionally or not, there is a bleeding of pre and post-apartheid South African politics in the District 9 story line. On the surface it first appears that we are immersed in an allegorical pre-1994 South Africa, but as the story unfolds, much of the plot involves sociopolitical overtones from present day South Africa and it may serve the audience better to view this film as a post-apartheid parable about illegal immigration and Malthusian despair. (Malthus was an influential early 19th century writer who wrote extensively on matters of excessive population growth). The modern fable Blomkamp has fashioned here is a contentious and potentially explosive one – that black South Africans are prone to the saying and doing the same intolerant things that white Afrikaans were universally condemned for two decades ago. There are unpopular, politically incorrect elements of District 9 (specifically the portrayal of the evil Nigerian crime syndicate, among others) but we westerners have all but ignored the region since Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 and it seems that the truth of the matter is rather more grim than you might hope. It seems that they didn't live happily ever after.
In order to properly contextualize the story in District 9, you also need to be aware of a couple of key political events in the recent past....
Political primer #1.... After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Afrikaans elite (aka: rich whitey) decided within three months to deal with the then-71 year old Mandela, confident that a black government wouldn’t be so influenced by the godless Commies as to immediately kill the capitalist goose that lays the golden (and diamond) eggs. The system that emerged has been fine for those whites rich enough to afford ample private security, but unsurprisingly bad for the Afrikaans working class, many of whom (including the director's family who reside in B.C.) left the country. Not surprisingly, the early decades of the new ANC government and a vanishing middle class have left the country corrupt, riddled with crime and flirting with anarchy. A sort of reverse ethnic cleansing has seen the country's skilled white middle class depart for safer havens and a vacuum develop in its place.
Political primer #2.... After 20 years of black rule, neighbouring Zimbabwe experienced a political meltdown/societal collapse in recent years that has left millions of refuges fleeing the country for the relative safety and financial promise of South Africa. This massive influx of refuges (3 to 5 million is the latest count) has caused a great deal of social unrest in South Africa pitting two black communities against one another.
In a recent interview, writer/director Blomkamp had this to say about the current state of affairs in South Africa:
“Another part of recent South African history that isn’t world news is that the collapse of Zimbabwe has introduced millions of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants into South African cities. … Now you have this powder-keg situation, with black against black … [W]e woke up one morning to find out that Johannesburg was eating itself alive. Impoverished South Africans had started murdering impoverished Zimbabweans, necklacing them and burning them and chopping them up.”
Armed with this information, District 9's political underpinnings make substantially more sense to the uninitiated and underinformed like myself. While the film is quite easily viewed as a piece of video-game escapism, the more interesting layers of the plot almost require a bit of background detail to help contextualize the story. Without this frame of reference, the film's allegorical side is all rather confusing. I understand why the film maker chose to shift the film into Sci-Fi fanboy territory and leave the more political aspects on the margins. It was probably the right decision. The fact that a sociopolitical context exists at all in District 9 is impressive enough.
Once this releases to DVD and a few others have had a chance to watch it, I'd be interested to hear what you thought of the film's trickier undercurrents.