District 9

District 9

District 9

Back in 2006 Neil Blomkamp released an amazing short film titled Alive in Joburg. It was only six and a half minutes long, but it blew my mind. It had amazing low key special effects the kind of timing, and sense of direction usually only seen in professional documentaries and a well thought out premise. This short was the seed – the original concept that has evolved into the Peter Jackson backed blockbuster mega production you have seen in the cinemas under the title District 9.

If you are an old time reader you may remember that I linked to this short a long time ago. Of course, as it is usually the case with Youtube videos the one I embedded in that post has been eaten by the forces of internet entropy.

But have no fear – nothing good ever gets lost on the internet. The film has resurfaced and I will embed it here for your convenience. Please take a few minutes of your time and watch it before you continue reading this review:

Alive in Joburg uploaded by scisar

Did you watch it? Ok, I just ruined District 9 for you. No, no it’s not spoilers. I wouldn’t do that to you. It’s just that this short is actually much, much better than the movie. It’s a highly concentrated dose of awesomeness – a smart, contemplative, complex and layered mocumentary that depicts the plight of a population of aliens who landed near Johannesburg in a fleet of derelict, broken down spaceships. In the short 5 minutes it touches on so many subjects – the social tensions between the locals and the aliens, the plight of the marooned space travelers living in absolute poverty and etc.

The short is amazing – and that’s why Neil Blomkamp got a mountain of money and personal blessing from Peter the Fucking Jackson himself to develop it into a full motion picture. Somehow he took all that cash and produced something that is around 20 times longer and has roughly half the content of the original. How did that happen?

I tell you how it happened – fucking Hollywood logic intervened. Hollywood logic which goes like this: no one will actually want to watch an hour long face documentary, no matter how awesome and realistic we make it… When people go to the movies they want to see car chases, explosions and firefights. So we will add all of these things in, whether it makes sense or not.

Surely enough, the film starts off true to it’s source – as a mocumentary of sorts, but about halfway through it undergoes some sort of frontal lobotomy and devolves into a fast paced action flick playing fast and lose with the plot and the continuity. I’m almost tempted to put it on my list of potentially awesome movies ruined halfway through. But in this case I’m thinking the movie was doomed from the start.

I mean, how do you turn a clever SF short that was designed to deliver interesting, open ended social commentary into an action movie without completely re-constructing the premise? I don’t know! Neither did Neil Blomkamp and his team so they changed things around. Instead of a derelict but semi-working fleet we now have a single hulking wreck that stopped working 20 years ago. Instead of strange alien machinations an attempts to refuel the ships we now have them trading in weapons technology. In the short the aliens lived below poverty level because they simply had no other option. They didn’t own anything, they had nothing to trade, they couldn’t really get jobs – they were dependent on state welfare. The in question state was the Apartheid government so they were simply fucked. In the movie, the aliens are instead forced to live in military controlled concentration camp mostly due to their disruptive hyper-violent behavior and lack of understanding for human laws and customs.

These changes cut deeply into the very fabric of the film and change it’s tone and the overall message. What’s worse, they also open jarring plot holes. For example, the movie establishes that all the aliens had to be transported from the derelict ship using helicopters. You’d think that the rescue team would disarm them for safety, and confiscate any and all technology before bringing them down.

If so, where are they getting all these weapons including a massive combat armor used in the last act? Considering that their ship is hovering in a tightly controlled militarized zone protected by anti-air turrets there is really no way they could be smuggling things down. Not to mention that human science teams would probably strip the said ship out of everything that was not welded down. So I get how the science teams would have access to the weapons, but not how the vast amounts would end up back in the hands of aliens. The movie does nothing to explain it. In fact it avoids the while subject.

Alien weapons exist. That's all we are going to say about it!

Alien weapons exist. That's all we are going to say about it!

Granted – some smaller weapons might have been smuggled out during the evacuation. Some may have fallen to earth along with other debris that detached itself from the hulk over the years. But the alien guns seem to be plentiful and ubiquitous. What’s even more bothersome is almost complete absence of other alien technology (save for few glimpses here and there). This bugged the hell out of me throughout the move.

District 9 is one of those productions that comes with a reference manual Wiki that probably explains this away in some way. But, since I haven’t read any outside literature (even if it’s considered canon) I am considering this a plot hole.

I also did not like the Applied Phlebotinum alien “fluid” that has miraculous properties. Not only a few drops of it can power alien weapons, ships and combat armors. Mere exposure to it can radically alter human DNA in a very specific, direct and almost deliberate manner. Way to convenient if you ask me.

Is District 9 a bad movie then? No, it is not. At least not compared to some of the other crap that I watched this year. Even though it was dumbed down, it still remains a thought provoking science fiction production. The overabundance of special effects failed to completely overshadow the original concept, and the vestigial social commentary that it managed to carry over from the short. Instead of casting pretty faces, District 9 employs a competent cast of skilled actors who actually look and behave like normal people.

While the move has fast paced action sequences, with mind bogglingly expensive CGI it never actually edges into the Michael Bay territory of obnoxious stupidity and tasteless flair. It is a good movie – and I only complain so much because it could have been so much more. If I never watched Alive in Joburg I’d probably love the movie so much more. I’d still complain about the plot holes and the magical fluid but I’d probably talk about it in superlatives.

That’s my take on it – I have seen many bad movies this year, and District 9 is not one of them. So if you are one of those people who is getting ready to write a comment saying the movie should be judged on it’s own merit then give it a rest. When not juxtaposed against it’s original source the film is one of the better movies of this summer. But for me it is hard to look at it that way, because I have seen what it could have been.

Am I trying to say the move should have kept a in the documentary style? I really can’t say. To me the original premise with many ships, and “utility worker” suits rather than high powered combat armors was better. But that’s me. Your millage may varry.

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2 Responses to District 9

  1. Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp were originally slated to make the Halo movie. After seeing District 9, I have hopes the plans will be reinstated. Yeah, there were a lot of holes and Hollywoodization of District 9, but I accept movies for what they are, entertainment.

    Thanks for posting that clip.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Craig A. Betts:

    I don’t know man. I only played the first Halo, but I remember it’s story being sort of disjoint and thematically unbalanced jumping from the colorful and somewhat cartoony Covenant forces to the HL2 zombie like enemies and back. As a game it was quite enjoyable, but I’m not sure how it would translate into a movie. Then again, it’s Peter Jackson so maybe he would have figured out a way.

    Craig A. Betts wrote:

    Yeah, there were a lot of holes and Hollywoodization of District 9, but I accept movies for what they are, entertainment.

    Yeah, me too – but that doesn’t stop me from nitpicking and yelling at the writers for making obvious errors. Jarring plot holes ruin my suspense of disbelief and take me out of the experience. Also, I tend to over-analyze the stuff I watch so that I can review it – which means that Fridge Logic hits me quicker than an average viewer.

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