District 9, although lacking in the traditional three-act structure screenplay, dazzled audiences all over America this weekend. Maintaining an 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and grossing $37 million in one weekend is no small feat. In fact, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson, with the relatively positively reviews have begun talks of making the movie into a franchise.
In short, the film appears to be Blomkamp’s subtle way to deal with South Africa’s history of apartheid. The movie itself does not beat you over the head with truisms or moralisms as per many other movies on racism, but it does leave one with the sense that something is wrong in the world. When one of the main characters begins morphing into the aliens he had formerly sent eviction notices to, he must deal with the words of a young alien who now notices, “We are the same.” His thoughts?
“We are not the same!”
These words stress what seems to be the central message of the movie. The aliens in this movie, as Rick Groen rightly points out, are not here with “either with evil intentions or innocent eyes.” They are not perfect, but neither are they imperfect. Humans are not protrayed as perfect, but neither are they imperfect. It appears that, when the shots have all been fired, we are essentially the same.
With that set as a kind of meta-premise, the majority of the middle of the movie is simply standard hollywood violence and big-gunned battles. There are a number of holes in the plot, and many of the back-stories are never concluded (sequel?). All of the violence in the middle moves away from the mockumentary style of the rest of the movie to a more Live Free or Die Hard style shots of grandeur. As a result, District 9’s central message gets lost amidst a story that has no closure.
Another major let-down was that the famous scene from the trailer actually did not make it into the movie. An alien in the preview is asked, “How do your weapons work?”
The alien answers:
“We just want to go home.”
This element is carried somewhat by the father and son in the story, but the scene is cut out of the movie. There could have been an interesting sub-plot dealing with the pscyhology of the aliens there that was never fully explored.
To sum it up simply: District 9 had all the makings for a great movie, and in many ways it was, but it also failed in other ways that give it a 3 out of 5 in my book.
[afterword: I have heard that Blomkamp shot hundreds of hours of extra footage and this may be the classic story (a la “Once Upon a Time in America”) of having to cut the movie into uneven pieces for theatrical release. Perhaps a later director’s cut will fill in the pieces I have talked about above.]