Most of the time, when I disagree with the major critical consensus in certain areas (i.e. the newest Star Trek films), I can still see why others would like the particular thing(s) I disagree with them about. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I just cannot fathom why District 9 is “staggeringly original” (Jeanette Catsoulis, NPR), “the ‘mission statement’ of science fiction” (Emily Asher-Perrin, Tor.com), or containing of “all the elements of a thoroughly entertaining science-fiction classic” (the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus—no, really). I just can’t.
The film doesn’t start off as much more than a gimmick, but at least it’s a genuinely eye-catching gimmick. In short, the mockumentary style is convincingly used to document the story of aliens—derogatorily referred to as “Prawns”—finally landing on Earth (more specifically, South Africa), only to be rounded up and relocated to the camp of the title.
Sounds smart, in a very Vonnegutian kind of way? Admittedly, yes, but District 9’s satire on discrimination—more specifically, apartheid—is so blunt and obvious that it ultimately rings hollow (even though this commentary is the very reason so many people have loved the film). For instance, a group of Nigerian gangsters, which become one of the biggest antagonists later on, are shown to be eating dead Prawns’ body parts because their limited knowledge of them leads them to believe that they’re “magical”. Subtle, I know.
Pretty early on, however, District 9 confusingly ditches the mockumentary format altogether (save a brief recurrence of it at the very end)* and takes a pretty standard approach to following Wikus van de Merwe, a buffoonish character I knew or cared very little about**, as he starts turning into a Prawn himself as a result of accidentally spraying their fuel into his face. Of course, the corporation he works at wants to take full advantage of this since Prawn arms can fire extraordinarily destructive weapons (because “big corporations=evil” is a message that’s never been communicated before), so Wikus has to flee into the Prawns’ own territory.
Admittedly, this also has some pretty good potential, but the film throws all that away in favor of a clichéd “unlikely buddies”—in this case, one human, one alien—story, as well as some story shifts that are frankly quite confounding. District 9 is very clearly trying to be a serious allegory about some serious historical troubles (particularly during its opening bit), yet its third-act violence is so cartoonishly bloody that the film just starts resembling a high-powered videogame. Somehow, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is still the only film I’ve seen that can shift through multiple tones while also keeping its story engagingly consistent. Too bad we couldn’t get the same thing here.
Anyhoo, District 9 does have its bright spots. Despite the tonal awkwardness of the action scenes, they are pretty well-executed, and the gore and creature effects are far more accomplished than the (relatively) tiny $30 million budget may suggest. Also, the South African landscapes add a surprising—and refreshing—amount of grittiness to the proceedings, and the decision to not make the Prawns not look cute or cuddly, but rather like something out of a David Croneberg film (more specifically, The Fly) is a very bold and admirable one.
So I guess the film does deserve a mildly positive rating, all things considered. Still, it just doesn’t deserve all the praise others have dumped on it without hesitating.
*What makes this even more frustrating is how inconsequential this ultimately makes the “mockumentary” part of the film. All of that could have been replaced with standard exposition, and you’d more or less have the exact same movie. I’m not kidding.
*Seriously, Wikus has barely any personality, character, or even charm at all. His only sympathetic quality is that he has a wife who loves him, and even that is almost completely brushed over. So why exactly am I supposed to feel for him when his body starts freakishly mutating out of nowhere?