District 9 suffers from split personality. One is a mock-documentary with all the style and conventions expected of the genre. The other is a slick action film made on the cheap. While both cover the same story, they never feel like the same film. In fact, the two halves often simply compensate from the shortcomings of the other half.
For instance, the documentary half is essentially a direct way to have exposition in a way the audience will accept. The film places an “expert” in front of the camera to expound on whatever nugget of information that the audience needs to know. It’s a writing copout, a way to subvert clever plotting and dialogue and simply directly tell the audience. The talking heads of District 9 are better suited for television programming than a big screen blockbuster.
Yet this was probably done out of necessity because District 9 was made on a relatively small 30 million dollar budget. Most of that money likely went into the second half of District 9, where the real conflict occurs and the film takes shape. Yet the second half feels a bit too action heavy as if to compensate for all the droll presentation that plagued the first half.
From the first few moments there is conflict as District 9 catches the audience up with what District 9 is, a holding camp for aliens that ended up stranded on our planet, their mother ship having come to rest above the outskirts of Johannesburg in South Africa. The humans and aliens are, not surprisingly, at odds with each other. The aliens are prone to violence when provoked and the language barrier alone has a tendency to make the simplest interactions take a turn for the worse.
The first half of the film is the exploration of what basically is racism towards these aliens. Without being heavy-handed about it the film evokes thoughts of the concentration camps in World War II. As the film progresses the parallels become more prominent. This is the kind of social commentary that Trekies (or Trekers if you are really that picky) wanted out of Star Trek: expounding upon the prevalence of alien racism. All joking aside it’s a compelling way to make a different kind of sci-fi where the aliens are the ones on the verge of being wiped out.
But seriously, you aren’t going to go to District 9 to get all weepy or enraged about alien racism. You’re going because the film looks cool and promises some tight action. It’s the second half where these two kick in and the film starts going places. The action, while shot in a handheld style, is never disorienting. Sometimes the spectacle itself can be a bit overwhelming to the senses, but you are never at a loss for what is going on and where everyone is in relation to each other.
Special effects tend to not impress me. In fact, the last special effects that blew me away in a film were in the wizard fight at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. District 9 is perhaps more impressive than that fight despite the fact it’s not as big a spectacle. The mastery of District 9 is in seamlessly blending the effects into the world. The aliens in this film are the most real any creature has looked in a film. They blend into the film perfectly. Part of this is done by creating their skin tones the same as the dreary landscape of District 9, but it’s still impressive.
As I’ve said, I’m not much of a special effects fan and neither am I particularly fond of action films. Yet for me these two elements were the film’s strong suits and where the film should have focused on more. The first half simply didn’t grab me, but once the movie shifted over to the film half it had my attention. This is partially because of a compelling narrative and partially because of the well done action.
No matter how you look at it, District 9 is essentially two films. While both are interesting, the second film is stronger. If you were to cut out about half of the narrative in the documentary half, shoot it as a film, setup what takes an hour in the film in fifteen minutes and add a bit more character development you’d have a tight 90 minute movie. I doubt a single person would complain that the movie was too short as long as it could condense that information effectively and keep their attention. Instead, District 9 takes a more grounded approach and while it’s a solid film, it fails to reach the level of greatness.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing