I will admit, I was very wary of seeing District 9 for a variety of reasons. For one, my exposure to South African films had led me to the conclusion that the South African film industry is the worst in Africa. Armed with relatively large budgets, South African films seemed technically solid but at best, soulless and at worst, odious. On a continent where countries like Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali make amazing, artistic and entertaining films with a uniquely African voice, why would I want to see another glossy piece of crap from what seems like an ersatz Hollywood? Critical Assignment was one long and comically awful Guinness ad, Boesman and Lena an unwatchable minstrel show, Stander stultifying bland, Wooden Camera a ponderous examination of racial politics, and The Gods Must Be Crazy (I & II) ponderously racist. When Tsotsi was praised by the Academy, I wrote it off without giving it a chance. Only Richard Stanley's Hardware and Dust Devil did much for me. Also, I find South African accents (and all non-rhotic accents) rather unpleasant.
What's more, the premise of aliens living in townships sounded like a thinly veiled excuse for some heavy-handed sermonizing. Were District 9 to follow Hollywood rules, the film would inevitably follow the valiant effort of one member of the oppressors who, following a change of heart, would lead the helpless "Others" to victory after gaining their trust whilst the villains would embody absolute evil, therein allowing the members of the audience to feel good about themselves by making sure that they couldn't identify at all with the antagonists. Simultaneously it would allow them to feel down due to their acceptance by the authentic victims; a genre I call "Through Blue Eyes" (e.g. Dances with Wolves, Schindler's List, The Last Samurai, The Mission, Ghosts of Mississippi, The New World, Mississippi Burning and on and on). A human and an alien would come to love each other, profess to have one another's backs, and probably stand back-to-back with guns drawn on the opposition. If I want to hear shallow discussions about racial politics, I don't watch buddy films, I have a beer at the white house.
Fifteen years after the fact, a film telling me that apartheid was bad, I thought, would be pointless and annoying. Even the Israeli government can agree that South Africa's apartheid system was unjust. Do we need a sci-fi, a genre at often its best when examining our own failings, to tell us that discrimination is wrong? Furthermore, the message, if applied in District 9, wouldn't even seem very analogous. After all, the aliens in the film came to South Africa and are forced into townships. In South Africa, it was the pre-existing black population (who, it should be noted, had largely displaced and destroyed the indigenous one) who were rounded up by the new arrivals. If the film was going to draw simple parallels to South Africa, the aliens would be forcing the South Africans into concentration camps, not the other way around.
Then there was the Peter Jackson issue. Although just the producer, after the leaden, hokey and abjectly awful King Kong, I worried that his involvement might be a detriment (despite having never made a less than excellent film before).
Fortunately, District 9 is a thoroughly enjoyable film that works both as entertainment and thoughtful art. It does contain lessons about prejudice, but does so by creating an interesting scenario and then intelligently expounding upon it. And, with a paltry $40 million cost, it's a lesson in how sci-fi/action films should be and thus a towering middle finger to Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers. Even with its relatively meager budget, it serves up consistently amazing special effects and the result is the most enjoyable sci-fi film since 28 Days Later.
To start, Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe is pretty much perfect. He plays the protagonist as neither a sexy, roguish anti-hero nor a ethically spotless do-gooder. Rather, he's an unfailingly chipper, by-the-books bureaucrat who's devoted to his wife but at the same time, not completely likeable. He has a pronounced yellow streak and he doesn't, unlike say Matt Dillon's character in Crash, magically transform over the course of the film into a good person. In fact, no one in the film, with the exception of the alien, Christopher Johnson, is a shining avatar. In many ways, Wilkus reminded me of David Brent, an association re-inforced by the faux-documentary set-up that thankfully falls by the wayside after a methodically paced and protracted opening act. And even Christopher Johnson is so damned physically repulsive that the viewer's sympathetic connection to him is rather challenged. Even an intergalactic sex tourist like Captain Kirk would probably require a case of Romulan Ale before going there. One of the many clever and innovative (by Hollywood standards) aspects of the film is that the audience isn't let off the hook for its/our seemingly insurmountable prejudices. For example, when we're informed that there's a considerable demand for interspecies prostitution, it's hard not to wince at the thought, despite our valiant attempts to remain open minded.
In doing so and in other ways, the film also suggests that discrimination and prejudice aren't the sole province of white people -- something so obviously true and yet still treated as controversial by the Kool-aid-drinking PC cult. It's rather laughable that more than one reviewer has knee-jerkily attacked the film for daring to depict Nigerian criminals as opportunistic villains, since we're only used to accepting black Africans as victims. In one of the only straightforward analogies in the film, the depiction of their cannibalism of the aliens is rather similar to the very real issue of some Africans' cannibalism of albinos for their supposed magical properties. District 9 is refreshingly and nearly completely devoid of simple, spoon-fed, race-based moralizing. It points fingers at all people complicit with concentration camps, occupations, townships, reservations, security fences and apartheid walls, regardless of skin color or hair type, instead equally implicating all humans for discrimination, xenophobia, tribalism and intolerance.
Filmically-speaking, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp's sensibility is very African. The film is in no rush to get going. It doesn't use slow-motion or Matrix-style effects. It doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence, explaining every aspect of the story which, for some viewers so used to Hollywood, may be misinterpreted as a technical failing. We are never told why the aliens came, why they chose Jo-Berg, how they have sex, why they like cat food, how many hours they sleep, what their favorite color is, &c. The film requires that the audience assume that a government figure specializing in alien affairs will, after a 28-year presence, learn their language, without showing us him buying and using Rosetta Stone software. Its only glaringly non-African concession to foreign audiences is in the use of subtitles to reveal information about the date and time of the proceedings.
As with all films, District 9 isn't flawless and viewers determined to find fault will invariably find enough in the film to justify their need to offer a voice of dissent against the overwhelmingly positive opinions of the masses. The two main standbys for these determined contrarians are usually bad acting and predictability. The acting is uniformly good, so only the most poorly reasoned wag will choose it as a criticism. Predictability, on the other hand, is a reality of all films. Yes, it's of a typical length, it tells a story, and there's a beginning and end. Just as Saturday predictably follows Friday, the ability to predict the inevitable isn't a sign of a reviewer's insight. As with all films, nor is District 9 completely original. The film echoes in varying degrees Enemy Mine, Alien Nation, The Fly, Iron Man and the Get a Life episode "Spewey and Me." It's also much better than any of them... except for, maybe, the under-recognizedly brilliant Get a Life. And it's not just because of lowered expectations stemming from Hollywood's near complete reliance on video games, pre-existing franchises, and old TV shows. District 9 is a breath of fresh air-- a fun, gorey, loud, gross, inventive and rousing mix of space opera and more speculative sort of sci-fi that examines issues that in many cases don't always have clear cut, real-world parallels. As such, I highly recommend it.