The Videogum Movie Club: District 9
Do you know about ketchup? You see, there are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. And ketchup, or at least Heinz ketchup, combines all five of these, to create an overwhelmingly satisfying taste. Yum. It is a little salty, a little sweet, a little sour, a little bitter, and most importantly: it has umami. For those of you unfamiliar with umami, it is the rich and hearty taste of “protein,” for lack of a better description. It’s meaty. Thick. (That is what she said.) And it is present in ketchup, which is why ketchup is such a popular condiment. There are very few individual foods that combine all five tastes so perfectly.
Is District 9 the Heinz ketchup of movies, or what?
Wow, what a great movie. It really had everything! It hit all of the pleasure centers. On some level it was just a straight-ahead alien action-adventure movie. How exciting was it, for example, when Wikus first fired that force-field gun? (Really, all of the alien weaponry scenes were pretty fun and exciting, you have to admit.) It had an origin story (Wikus’s transformation from doofus into hero), it had an escape story, it had an unobtrusive–which is rare–love story, it had betrayal and cute children and horror gross-outs. Oh man.
And then, of course, there was the overlying metaphor, always present in alien movies (alien=Other=duh) but super-present here with the Johannesburg slums, and the racial tension, and the documentary style cinematography (more on that in a second). But what was so effective about all of this was that it was seamlessly worked into the story. It was a backdrop, yes, but it wasn’t slapdash, or gimmicky (maybe a tiny bit gimmicky, fine) and it was not overbearing. Like, I still need a few days to think about the over-arching meaning of some of this stuff, you know? It did not beat you over the head, as it so easily could have. It just filled your head with a bunch of stuff, and then left the two of you alone. But how wonderful for a funtimes action adventure alien movie to also give you something to think about!
Another thing I liked: how the movie was simultaneously super simple, and also super complicated, all at the same time. Levels! (Districts!)
Sharlto Copley (Wikus) was so great, too. It is really important in pseudo-documentaries to cast unknowns otherwise the edifice of reality falls apart. Following Will Smith around with a video camera doesn’t make any sense. (Congratulations on graduating from Pseudo-Documentary School.) And it is nice to see a movie without any famous people in it do really well on the basis of it just being a good movie. Come on, guys, Topher Grace doesn’t have to be in EVERYTHING. But if the unknown actors do their job well, then they won’t be unknowns the next time, and that is the case here. Dude is going to be in more movies, for sure. Good for him. Be in all of them. You’ve earned it. He got some help from the writing, though, because his character was really solid. He was lovable and also detestable at the same time, just like human beings! He hit his friend Christopher in the head with a shovel and stole his fucking spaceship. His boy was in there. What an asshole! And even towards the end he was going to abandon him in his mecha suit. But then he did come back. you have to give him credit for that. He came back and he saved Christopher Johnson.
There was a minor breakdown in logic about halfway through the movie, when Wikus escaped from the military scientists and eventually made camp in District 9…but was still being followed by a documentary crew? I mean, I know that he wasn’t, he was just the subject of the movie, and they kept the visual style consistent, but it’s kind of like the problem I have with The Office entering it’s sixth season. If that was really a documentary, it is too long. Who is still watching these normal people go about their day to day lives at a paper company? But whatever. Marriage is a compromise, and to some extent so is the logic of District 9.
The other thing that was really interesting about the fake-documentary style of the movie was how accustomed we are in the west to only experiencing the third world through documentaries. So on one level, it was using all of the tropes that we recognize from documentaries in general, yes, but on another level it tapped into our (my) entire experience of this part of the world, which is almost exclusively through British Empire-inflected talking heads going on and on about the plight of the Africans (who are then interviewed themselves against a backdrop of garbage). I don’t even know what all of this means! I’m not a scientist. But it is something to think about! You racist!
I read one complaint somewhere via somewhere that the last half-hour was “lazy and conventional.” That hardly seems to be the case. I mean, I guess there was, like, a chase scene, and the bad guy got his head ripped off, but lots of the narrative threads were left untied. Wikus wasn’t turned back into a human, or reunited with his wife. None of the aliens were rescued. The slum redistricting plan went ahead as scheduled. Admittedly, I’m pretty sure they used the words “District 10” in the final sentence of the movie (I get it!) and as he was escaping, Christopher promised to come back in three years, which is approximately how long it would take to finish the sequel, but, you know, movies is movies.
And what a movie! Right?