District 9: Is it an Allegory or an Action Movie?

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Director Neil Blomkamp constructs a sci-fi allegory to explore the violence, cruelty and exploitation of South African segregation and poverty, apartheid and after. The result, however, is an awkward
collage of documentary, body-horror, corporate exposé, and action movie.

In 1989, intergalactic refugees arrive at Johannesburg, South Africa, and, much like their earthly counterparts, they are confined to a squalid shanty-town, ‘temporary accommodation’ that turns perpetual prison. When they move outside these boundaries, they arouse fear, shame, and quickly hatred. And so, much of Jo’burg becomes a human-only zone, and ‘the prawns’ are penned into District 9, analogous to apartheid-era District 6 and contemporary refugee slums such as Chiawelo. A beleaguered state out-sources the problem, and the dastardly Multi-National United take responsibility for, and effective control over the alien population.

As the plot proper begins, riots and racism have put the eviction and relocation of District 9 onto the agenda and we follow, via a workplace documentary, the overseer of this project, Wikus van der
Merwe, a bumbling bureaucrat with a terrible ‘tache and an ugly sweater.

This period of the film is the strongest, as van der Merwe leads a small private army into the slum, coercing and bribing their way to consent forms. The casual racism and bureaucratic brutality exhibited
here are the closest the film comes to a articulate critique of its real-world basis. But this sequence and the documentary form soon give way, as Wikus is infected with some sort of alien gloop, and he begins to undergo an inter-species transformation. The ensuing body-horror serves to drive the plot to corporate exposé and, from there, onto familiar ground, along the pockmarked path of the action movie, until, with explosions echoing in our ears, the titles roll.

Based on Alive in Joburg, a 6 minute short, District 9 seems to have suffered from the difficulties of translation to feature film. Premise alone can last for 6 minutes, but not 112, and the unconvincing
narrative fails to integrate the collage of theme and genre into a coherent whole. The social criticism that inspires this film is enabled by the documentary style, which assesses the relationships
between terrestrial and extra-terrestrial by intercutting narrative focus with commentator-led overviews.

The suffering visited upon those at the mercy of structures of bureaucratic control and institutional racism is clear and unmistakable in this first part. But this is complemented by careful characterisation of Wikus, who emerges as a insecure and incompetent fool, whose bravado, forced camaraderie and casual racism seem desperate attempts at attaining success and respect. However, the fruitful exploration of standpoint does not survive the transition to action-movie as Wikus is forced to morph into a semi-human superhero.

This transition and transformation are unfortunate, and we are left with an action-movie/corporate exposé, tied to the first sequence awkwardly by an uninspiring plot. The rest of the movie seems somewhat pointless, as if the director was trying to find a way to extend its length. The closing arc, in particular, seems as if extra obstacles are put in front of the heroes simply to drag out the closure. They should have saved the film and left it no longer than an hour, but unfortunately, the demands of cinematic form seem to have prevailed.


District 9 – Trailer

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