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August 14, 2009

District 9

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 7:48 pm

I had a work-sponsored trip to see District 9. The short version of the review is that I hadn’t seen any of the previews or anything, and had just heard a little bit about it, so I was expecting a political allegory involving aliens. What I got was a B-movie in Peter Jackson style (no, it wasn’t written or directed by him, but you can see why he wanted to produce it). Taken in that light it was fine but the plot still made no damn sense, so I am going to spend the rest of the post griping about it. Needless to say this is spoilers.

Ok, so first off, the aliens have been on earth twenty years and there are (literally) a million of them and nobody’s been able to get back to the mothership? Really? It’s not like it’s that far up — it’s high, but not in space or anything. Even if they couldn’t find enough fuel (though since the guy sprayed half of it on his face, obviously they had actually had enough for a while), they should have been able to jury-rig something with conventional propellants.

Now, one logical explanation is that most of the aliens are stupid. This is seriously proposed at one point, that they’re all drones and kind of listless, but then how do you explain the hero alien? It seems pretty clear that the alien intelligence fluctuates in direct accordance with the needs of plot — they can build a crazy giant robot exoskeleton, but can’t set up any kind of society in the ghetto they’re stuck in. Or, for that matter, they can build a big ship that’ll fly themselves through space. Though it seems conceivable this is sort of a B Ark setup; maybe these aliens seem dumb because they actually are all the dumb ones, plus a few random normal aliens who got stuck in by mistake.

And speaking of the hero alien, when is it established that his name is Christopher Johnson? It seemed like people just started calling him that — did I miss a bit or was it cut? Obviously it’s not his real name; is the implication that the aliens all got assigned human names when they arrived? I wonder what the logistics of assigning a million names would be. It would be awesome if they just, say, took every human name in Johannesburg and assigned them randomly to an alien. Then you could be name buddies with an alien and help them fit in on earth, it’d be great.

Anyway, the main issue I had with the movie isn’t a plot one, it’s a character one. Namely, the protagonist is a horrible, horrible person and really doesn’t redeem himself. His credentials as a terrible person are established early on, when we see his job is cheating aliens out of their homes, but his hobby is burning alien babies alive. Nevertheless, he’s perfectly willing to come running to the aliens when he needs help, willing to ally with one when it seems to be to his benefit, and just as willing to backstab his ally when that in turn benefits him more. And yet at the end there’s a tearful scene where the alien refuses to go on without him, and he nobly refuses and saves the day. What these people need is a honky! Though speaking of racial slurs, I did like that the aliens were called ‘prawns’. It sounds like an ethnic slur and you can say it in a sneering way or a more casual racism way.

Anyway, yeah. Some of this stuff could have been fixed with another ten or fifteen minutes of footage, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it was cut. But the characterization couldn’t really get fixed without a bigger rewrite, and I dunno what to do about that. But I guess most people who watch this film won’t care, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

6 Comments

  1. I mostly agree, but I can try and answer a couple of your questions:

    Christopher Johnson’s name was first read off of the clip-board during the eviction, so it appeared to be some previously assigned name.

    Early they established that the ship was non-operational because of the command module having dropped off. So they could go to the ship if they wanted, but it wouldn’t work if they did. Now this one sort of got ruined later by the ‘their guns and other technology not working for humans’ bit, as how would people be able to tell that was the problem with the ship in that case?

    It is kind of weak, but I thought at the time that when Christopher Johnson’s son threw the candy back at the main character when he said, “trust me, the kids go crazy for this stuff every time” that they were establishing that he was of another variety of alien than the typical drone. At times I also thought he looked slightly different than the others. I’m probably reaching on this one, though.

    I can’t decide if I agree with your last point, or not. At some level I feel like they were trying to do a ‘most anti-alien racist person turns into what he hates and learns sympathy’ plot, but I’m not sure they got there by the end with the *one* sympathetic move he made.

    Comment by Bryce — August 15, 2009 @ 8:36 am

  2. Did you see the original short?

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1185812222812358837

    Comment by Sean — August 15, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

  3. Bryce: Good call on the name thing — I guess when he was first introduced I didn’t realize the name would be important and wasn’t paying attention. I also thought he might be a different kind of alien but they didn’t imply it strongly enough for me to be sure (that was a case where a few extra minutes of exposition would have helped a lot). With the command module, I figured the buried ship was the command module (but this was never said explicitly, so I wasn’t sure). I also figured that the fuel was just needed to get the command module back to the ship, so that was where I thought they could rig some other kind of propellant just to make the short trip up.

    Sean: Not bad! That was about the same amount of “political insight” the movie had too, I think, but in the movie it was stretched out over two hours. So I was hoping for something a little deeper than this — like, this is basically a simplistic “take aliens and have people talk about them like they’re some group of foreigners” substitution. But there isn’t any examination what effect the alien arrival would have on existing racial fractures; there are both black and white characters in the movie and they don’t have different reactions to the aliens at all, which seems like it’s missing some interesting opportunities to me. (Actually, that’s not totally true — “the Nigerians”, who are all black, are gangsters and think they can gain the powers of the aliens by eating them, but I wouldn’t say this advances the racial discussion much either.)

    Comment by inky — August 15, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  4. Did you ever see Alien Nation back in the 80s/90s? Same plot, a big spaceship crashlands (see, no more ship in this version!) outside LA, so all of a sudden there are a million refugee aliens living there. They were all assigned new american names by immigration officers. The hero alien there was given the name Sam Francisco until his human hero buddy changed it to George.

    Comment by katre — August 16, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

  5. So, about the name:
    The guys also have what seems tattoos or prints on their head which to me at least looked like it might be some sort of branding done by humans.

    Very interesting to see that short film. Now it all makes sense. They took a short film with a good idea and put, in inky’s own words’ spoilers and fins on it.

    Some I personally found very disturbing and very obvious was the alien weaponry. Come on all I thought of when I saw that was “This is a setup for a game with cool weapons.” And I will admit that I would play that game because they looked like fun. Sick fun, but fun.
    The gravity gun and pig thingy in the end was really, really over the top. That irked me quite a bit. It seemed like lame fan service to gamers.

    Also interesting observation on the hero. I had kind of made the same observation but failed to put finger on it.
    It’s absolutely true. He’s a sucker. I still think that it makes sense though, I guess people can turn around quickly once they notice that they’re going to die. Of course the alien has no reason to care for him and the whole scene was cheap. I agree on that.
    Well, blabla I’m not saying anything new. :)

    Comment by Touchy — August 17, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  6. Yeah, I thought it was pretty clear that this was a B Ark scenario, and Christopher and friends were the pilots or something. (And the C ark probably had the military, etc…) And I don’t think they built the mecha on Earth.

    The rest of your points definitely seem reasonable.

    Comment by dave glasser — August 19, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

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