Sometimes you come back to a movie you enjoyed a few years ago and discover that it’s lost its magic. It might be because the movie itself has not aged gracefully. It might be because your tastes have changed. Whatever the cause, it’s hugely disappointing and even a little sad. It’s like meeting up with an old friend over drinks after years apart to discover that you no longer have anything in common. He wants to talk about finance and politics while you care about film and literature. In the end, you part amicably knowing that’s the last time you’ll see each other. That’s how I felt re-watching District 9, the 2009 indie sci-fi flick by South African director Neill Blomkamp.
The film is set in an alternate Johannesburg, South Africa in 2010. Almost three decades earlier, an alien ship arrived in the city filled with malnourished aliens, given the derogatory moniker of ‘prawn’ due to their vaguely shrimp-like appearance. These aliens in general appear to have language and a rudimentary level of intelligence, but can’t survive on their own. As a result, they’re placed in a massive refugee camp. As the film opens, social tensions are flaring because the population of South Africa is sick of having this population of extraterrestrials in their country. The government decides to relocate the camp further from Johannesburg to diffuse some tensions. The effort is led by bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe [Sharlto Copley] who, in the process of the operation is exposed to a mysterious substance which starts to transform him into one of the ‘prawns.’
I remember watching this film in the theaters when it first came out. I was drawn into the theater by positive reviews and an innovative anti-extraterrestrial marketing campaign which peppered Chicago with signs declaring that bus stops were for humans only.
I was not disappointed. The film felt fresh. It removed science fiction from the highly clinical and technologically dominated settings that it usually inhabited. Instead, it located the film in a bustling city in the developing world, with all its chaos and vibrancy. It’s a refreshing setting for the science fiction genre which prefers modern metropolises, far away worlds, or spaceships. The dusty world of the refugee camps around Johannesburg feels like it could be real in a way that most science fiction settings do not. District 9 also succeeded in creating an [admittedly not very subtle] metaphor for the modern world, where the tensions between refugees and local populations are very real. Addressing current day problems with thinly veiled metaphors, of course, is one of the fields where science fiction excels. It made the film feel relevant in a way that many other movies do not.
Re-watching the movie, I could see why I enjoyed it the film the first time around. At the same time, almost from the opening scenes, I understood that this film didn’t resonate with me anymore. Perhaps it’s because of the dated effects. This film was made in 2009, but the effects already feel clunky and fake, and not in a charming way either. Of course, this film was made on a pretty tight budget. I imagine that I would give the aging effects a pass if the rest of the movie held up. Perhaps, then, it’s partially because I had just watched Children of Men a week earlier. That film also covers issues of refugees and immigration. It also departs from the standard science fiction setting to deliver something more contemporary and real. But it does it all with so much more nuance and attention to detail. Where Children of Men is a Monet, District 9 is a painting you’d find adorning a wall at your local Red Lobster. What you see is what you get. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it certainly doesn’t reward repeat viewings.
In the end, it’s the unique setting which made District 9 feel so fresh in the first place, and this lack of nuance that makes it fall flat on subsequent viewings. The film does a brilliant job of setting up its world through a series of documentary style segments. It then proceeds to populate that world with a series of one dimensional characters and a conventional action movie plot. Rather than focusing on the main character’s struggle to come to terms with his transformation into an extraterrestrial, it focuses on running, jumping, shooting, and blowing shit up. Rather than having a compelling villain, viewers are presented with archetypal characters like the crazy warlord or the blood thirsty mercenary. By its latter half, the film turns into a series of conventional action sequences pieced together by a series of adequate if predictable plot points.
So, I’m disappointed. District 9 is by no means a bad movie; it’s a thoroughly entertaining action romp. It’s just not repeat viewing material. Despite my fond memories of the film, I know that I won’t be sitting down for an evening with it anytime soon. If you’re a science fiction fan that’s never seen the film, by all means, go ahead and watch it on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a couple of beers. You’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re looking for a science fiction experience that’s going to stay with you for years to come, whether you typically enjoy the genre or not, watch Children of Men.