In Alive in Joburg, a film that was only six-and-a-half minutes in length, Neill Blomkamp toyed with an ingenious idea. Aliens are marooned in South Africa, and come seemingly in peace; but when they start moving into human neighborhoods, the authoritarian apartheid government locks them away in concentration camps. They’re treated as subhuman and forced into slummy squalor. The government agents are so insensitive that they act as though the lumbering spaceships are guilty of parking violations. Locals fear these illegal aliens, and the state caters to their fears. Although it’s interspersed with prosaic C.G., the movie is cleverly made to resemble scores of social-protest documentaries, and it shares their goals, too. The analogy is obvious, but Alive in Joburg is innovative science fiction—we see humans mistreat aliens like humans mistreat humans, and it makes the notion of man-to-man malefaction seem not only inhumane, but absurd. We feel revolted at the extraterrestrials’ plight, and ashamed that certain native Earthlings—who have darker skin, perhaps, but no tentacles dangling from their orifices—could be treated this way on their own planet.
In District 9, Blomkamp has stretched those six minutes into nearly two hours, but he has nothing more to say; like a carton of milk left out for too long, the core idea sours and goes rotten. I’m not sure if the implicit change in attitudes was a conscious choice on Blomkamp’s part, but Alive in Joburg, like the documentaries, looks as if it was meant to raise awareness and engender protest; District 9 is like an unremitting demonstration of how horrible humans are. The government’s role in the short is co-opted by a private corporation in the feature; and, in order to give us a linear plot, we are shown how the company turns against one of its own when an employee, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), begins to mutate into one of the aliens. He bugs out, literally and figuratively. But this metamorphosis is straight-faced Kafkaesque. The company, supervised by the employee’s father-in-law (Louis Minaar), wants to dissect Wikus so that they may better understand and market the advanced alien weaponry—which will make them a killing (again, literally and figuratively). But Wikus escapes, and his only chance of survival lies in cooperating with aliens whom he earlier scoffed at.
Blomkamp has a background in special effects, and was slated to direct the Halo movie before it was shelved; working with the same producer, Peter Jackson, he made this instead. The problem with District 9 is that Blomkamp directs as if he were still adapting a video game. Working with a budget that seems frugal compared to Hollywood’s follies, and, I presume, limited interference from Jackson, Blomkamp’s intelligence comes through; but his direction is monotonous and oppressive. He doesn’t sustain the documentary conceit for long, but his camerawork and cutting remain as hysterical as his hero; there’s not a moment of humor, or levity of any kind—not even a breather. Some action flicks, and arty exploitation movies like Inglourious Basterds, leer too long at the hick pornography of violence. District 9 is the opposite—its violence is like a slave master’s whip, and we’re flogged into recognizing injustices that you’d have to have Oedipus eyes to miss. Wikus doesn’t see the error of his ways until very late in the game, and what with the lack of any likable or caring or even interesting characters (of the human persuasion, at least), the anti-corporate message becomes singleminded in its pessimism. It’s as if Blomkamp were saying that institutionalized apartheid is fated to go on forever, and if some higher beings from elsewhere in the universe were to come and penalize us for our barbarism, we’d deserve it.
To be fair, I don’t think that that was necessarily Blomkamp’s intention. This is his freshman go at feature-film direction, and his shortcomings may well be ironed out in the future—District 9 is considered the sleeper hit of the summer, so his career is open-ended. The visual effects are impressive; the fight scenes are visceral (literally—ruddy viscera constantly splatters the camera lens); and the C.G. aliens are cleverly designed—they look like hermit crabs deprived of their shells. But that couldn’t account entirely for the film’s success, could it? It’s reassuring when a picture comes out of left field and enjoys mainstream popularity, particularly if it has an I.Q. that makes the Transformer robots look like wheelbarrows. Outside of the movie world, we still live in a time when the President is castigated if he intimates that America has so much as made a booboo in its two-and-a-third centuries of worldly affairs. Though this movie is set in South Africa, the problem of institutionalized racism is universal and ongoing, and needs to be addressed—no matter how “post-racial” we flatter ourselves for being. The movie is profusely, masochistically apologetic, but its irrevocably lost faith in humanity makes us shoulder responsibilities that we’re not entirely culpable for. It seems we’re all given a bum rap for a few rotten eggs, and those eggs are impossible to crack, so there’s no point in trying. When I pined that The Hurt Locker wasn’t given the multiplex run that popcorny thrillers get, I was told it was because that movie was depressing. Well, I saw District 9 at my local shopping mall, and it makes The Hurt Locker look like High School Musical.