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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hunter and I went to see DISTRICT 9. If you've missed the publicity, it's a mockudrama about insectoid aliens living in a slum in Johannesburg, South Africa. A big chunk of the setup comes in the form of documentary footage following around one government bureaucrat as he attempts to clear out the District 9 slum, evicting a million "prawns" so they can be resettled to a camp outside the city.

It's a wild ride, and the documentary style footage lends a sense of reality to the situation. Until you get out of the movie theater, it's a wild ride.

Go see it -- it's definitely worth seeing -- and then read the rest of this post. But sit a ways back from the screen -- a lot of the documentary-style footage is shaky.

(And here's a really good interview with first-time director Neil Blomkamp...)


The basic idea is that the "prawn" ship arrived twenty years ago, but has lost its command module, and so hovers, non-functional, over Jo'burg. The millions of prawns have lost any sense of order in their society. They've turned District 9 into a slum that's a dead ringer for some of the poorest townships in South Africa. The aliens seem to spend their days turning over trash heaps looking for things to eat, especially cat food, which is a sort of drug to them -- Nigerian bandits have set up inside the township to sell them cat food at outrageous prices.


It turns out the only thing the government is interested in are the prawn's weapons: energy rifles of spectacular power that, unfortunately for the arms manufacturers, can only be operated by the prawns themselves, due to a poorly understood biological relationship between the weapon and the prawn's arm.

A mild-mannered and banal but heartless bureaucrat, Wikus van der Merwe, is put in charge of a massive slum clearance operation -- they're moving the prawns to resettlement camps out of town. The resettlement is brutal and deadly.

When the bureaucrat gets sprayed with a liquid used in prawn technology, he quickly starts turning into a prawn. Soon he's taken away by the arms guys, who have been looking for a way to get the prawn weaponry to work. Since his arm is now a prawn arm, bingo, he can fire their cool weapons.

The bureaucrat escapes back to District 9, where he meets the one prawn who seems to have a plan, involving a canister of the precious liquid, which will allow him to fire up the missing command module, get back to the ship, fire it up, and escape from Earth. The bureaucrat and the smart prawn take some prawn weapons from the Nigerian bandits, invade the arms manufacturer's lab, grab the canister, and run back to District 9. The arms manufacturer sends its vicious soldiers after them. In a spectacular firefight, the smart prawn escapes to the mothership with his son, and the bureaucrat, in a heavily armed exosuit, fights off the soldiers.

In the end, the soldiers are all dead. The bureaucrat has transformed entirely into a prawn. The smart prawn takes the mothership away to his home planet.

There are many compelling things about the movie. We watch the bureaucrat transformed not only from human into prawn, but from a callous, cowardly, smug bureaucrat into someone willing to fight, if only for his chance to be turned back into a human being, so he can be with his wife again. And we come to care about the prawns, especially the smart prawn, who has a smart son. You don't often find yourself sympathizing with something with bug eyes and tentacles.

It's also neat that you don't know where the movie's going to go. Because the first half is so unrelenting -- the prawns really live in hell on Earth -- you're expecting a downer ending. So the bittersweet ending is a real surprise.

From a purely narrative point of view, the movie is a success, as a sort of horror/thriller. It's the story we've seen before, about the heartless oppressor who becomes the oppressed and learns the hell he's been putting them before. It could be a story about a Bureau of Indian Affairs guy who becomes an Indian, or apartheid bureaucrat who gets reclassified as black...

As science fiction, there are some gaping holes in the logic of the situation.

A mile-long ship is hovering over Jo'burg. We are asked to believe that, humans having cut their way into it and rescued a million prawns, no one is interested in any of their science or technology except for their portable guns. Surely the prawns know a great deal about their ship, and apparently we've learned their language. Surely every scientist in the world would be working with them to figure out their technology? I know I'd be more interested in a ship that can fly interstellar space than even the most spectacular guns. And what's their medical technology like?

But the filmmakers are making an allegory about arms sales in Africa, so we're stuck with the premise that evil arms manufacturers have been put in charge of the prawns.

Also, if we were hosting a million refugees from a species armed with spectacular weapons and spaceships, wouldn't even evil arms manufacturers want to treat them a whole hell of a lot better, just in case more of them showed up, this time with a functioning ship?

Even if we made them all live in one place, wouldn't we have programs where they came to human labs and universities and factories to teach us what they know? Because, y'know, unlike the Zimbabweans now pouring into South African society and living in slums, the prawns are technologically way ahead of us.

The situation is cheated a bit. It's not as messy as it "really" might be. Unlike illegal immigrants and South Africans, the two societies aren't really slamming into each other. They were, the movie tells us, but now the prawns are all behind walls.

What the filmmakers have made, instead -- if you scrape away the allegory -- is a well-told and moving and exciting but simplistic version of the story we've seen before of an ordinary bastard in a suit who becomes one of the people he's been oppressing. He loses everything, but discovers he's willing to endure any humiliation, any suffering, in order to preserve his hope of going back to his ordinary life.

To keep things simple and exciting, then, the end of the movie degenerates into an extended action sequence where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and virtue is rewarded and evil gets torn limb from limb.

I guess that's why I felt a bit disappointed coming out of the picture. I went to see a movie about humans living with aliens, and I saw a movie about the trials of an ordinary bastard in a suit. And then it became a straight popcorn movie with big explosions, and not so much you need to think about.

Still, ja -- a hell of a movie. Utterly convincing digital effects -- apparently they used no animatronics -- compelling situations, a moving ending. And pretty damn awesome for a $30 million first feature.

Oh, and here, courtesy of reader Frederic, is the original short the movie's based on:

Interesting that many of the "man in the street" interviews in the movie are real South Africans being interviewed about their feelings against the "alien" Zimbabwean illegal immigrants currently flooding South Africa. More here at io9.



The movie says all the soldier and leadership on the ship have died, and those that survived were the "dumb" worker caste, a classic element of sci-fi. What I was wondering is that these people were still smart enough to pick up English. Not being able to find the drop ship is apparently explained by the fact that they didn't know the significance of that clip before doing the documentary.

It's an interesting point about the studying the ship. However, it doesn't say that they were studying it, but somehow in 20 years they weren't able to dismantle it or take it out of the sky. Which I bought, probably because the mysterious black ship no one can enter is also pretty classic.

You can catch a few more details, and watch on youtube the short that this movie is based on here:

The best thing about the movie for me is that it wasn't the heavy-handed with the apartheid allegory I feared it would be. It was just a refreshing setting, and I think having unknown actors helped.

This movie avoided the burden of having to show and explain what's America's reaction to all of this, and we never notice it.

By Blogger frederic, at 12:31 PM  

btw I don't think it was necessary for your article to spoil the ending

By Blogger frederic, at 12:33 PM  

@Frederic: That's why I wrote "spoilers" in all caps! And I did need to mention that, because it's part of what's interesting about the choices made in the movie.

Yeah, it says all the soldiers and leadership caste have died. But then what's Red Prawn? He obviously knows how to use the shuttle and the ship. So he's leadership. Or isn't he?

If this were a science fiction story (and not just a movie set in a science fiction background), I'd hope to learn how the Red Prawn upgraded himself from worker caste. Or something. Did it take him 20 years to learn how to run the shuttle? Or was he on that all along? And if he's leadership caste, wouldn't he look different from the worker caste? Lord knows soldier ants look different from workers.

I'm not saying it would be a better movie if it had addressed this stuff, I'm saying it would be more satisfying *as science fiction.*

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:03 PM  

"The movie says all the soldier and leadership on the ship have died, and those that survived were the "dumb" worker caste"

Actually, it was prejudicial characters who said that. The Prawns were being seen as slaves, less than us.

And that was something that really bothered me. All of the smart people died? Who'd believe that?

Even the Hero Prawn was labelled, by the protagonist, as "one of the clever ones". Like a cat that fetches. How cute!

By Blogger James Patrick Joyce, at 1:04 PM  

Interesting! Yes, it could have been a prejudiced comment.

But it does look like none of Prawn know how to use their own weapon, except the hero Prawn, whom I understood to be in hiding, playing stupid.

Also, the humans did seem to know that the weapons were powerful (or am I confused with the short film); perhaps the ones that could use the weapon were killed in gunfights over the 20 years.

By Blogger frederic, at 1:11 PM  

@james patrick joyce:
"And that was something that really bothered me. All of the smart people died? Who'd believe that?"

There are diseases in the insect world that affect only certain types within the same species. e.g.

Black Queen Cell Virus

...so that aspect didn't bother me.

@alex epstein:
"But then what's Red Prawn?"

...do you mean Christopher? I don't remember him being red -- I remember his friend being red and Christopher and his son being greenish.

The movie doesn't divulge this, but I read an interview with the director saying that he had backstory concept that when the leadership caste in the group dies, it triggers a biological reaction in the group to slowly evolve new leadership members from workers, and that Christopher could represent one who is evolving (he doesn't confirm that that is actually what is happening with Christopher, interestingly). If I can find the link to the interview I'll post it.

By Blogger deanareeno, at 11:28 PM  

@Deenareeno: See, that's exactly what I figured might be happening. But I'd have liked to have known more about that.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:24 AM  

Alex it was very interesting to read your thought on District 9. I loved the film, my favorite of the year so far, edging out Star Trek (mostly because of the much lower budget - they were both fantastic movies).

I think so much of the story hinges on the Prawn child, the son. He seemed to be special, at one point he starts the command module activation sequence alone. I would not be surprised to here in the fleshed out backstory that something is going on there.

I don't really understand how the CM dropped from the ship anyway. Is it possible the CM was purposely dropped so that the humans would not be able to examine the advanced technology such as interstellar travel?

By Blogger Global, at 8:56 AM  

Anything's possible, but it doesn't really sound like the Prawns knew what they were doing. They could rather easily have kept us out of their kilometer-diameter spaceship if they had the motivation to do it.

This is what's so frustrating to me as an SF fan -- I wanted more SF!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:30 AM  

(possible spoilers ahead)

One of the things that bothered me about the movie was that the main human character was so unrelentingly pigheaded for too long.

It made me incredibly angry that after seeing the prawn dissections, saving and being saved by Cristopher in the corporate headquarters, and hearing Christopher and his son talk about saving their species, the main character KICKS the person who saved him and STEALS his transport.

Additionally, from the alien's point of view: the human knocks him unconscious, steals his transport, leaves him to be captured, and makes no attempt to rescue him (even though he's in a nearly indestructible mecha suit) until after his captors try to kill him. After ALL THAT, Christopher's first words to the human are, "I'll always be loyal to you."

Don't buy it. I think they should have eased the character changes. Then again, everyone I've run that argument by has not been bothered by it.

Other than that, fantastic film.

By Blogger Morley, at 5:25 PM  

@Morley: Ja. It reminded me a bit about movies about Black people starring one white person, or movies about Jews starring a Gentile. (E.g. Schindler's List.) The really interesting people are the Red Prawn and his son. Wikas never has a moment of cross-species understanding. He never cares about the prawns, ever. He just wants Christopher Johnson to make him human again. He's willing to do anything -- to get his wife back. That's the only thing he ever cares about. So it was a bit hard to care about him.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 6:08 PM  

I think you forgot a very blaring plot point as well. A majority of the 'prawn' were sick (deranged). Not able to relay the information needed to learn the technology.

Also, a ship a mile long wouldn't be disassembled by any country because it would be done in public. How can any country live down the destruction of the most advanced technology known to man? You'd have to disassemble the ship to learn it's technology. The mere thought of EVERYONE knowing a certain country did it would scare them away from learning the technology.

There were plot holes but I think the movie was very impressive because the holes weren't holes in my eyes. Just gaps.

By Blogger Dallas Coyle, at 10:14 PM  

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