Tuesday, September 1, 2009
District Nine: Worse than Cloverfield?
It was sweltering on Saturday in Oakland. Since air conditioning is a luxury in the Bay Area, my apartment was like the sweat box in a Southern chain gang camp. I decided to leave the oppressive heat of my rooms to dwell comfortably in an air-conditioned theatre during the hottest part of the day.
The only flaw in my plan was when the projectionist turned down the house lights and we were forced to watch District Nine, the sci-fi movie from South Africa that is getting a lot of completely undeserved buzz.
Let me be the buzzkill. Do not see District Nine. You'll thank me later. The tag line is "You Are Not Welcome Here." The correct translation of this is "(Moviegoers with brains) Are Not Welcome (in this theatre when District Nine is playing.)"
For those of you who plan to see District Nine! You are in a state of sin. Repent before it is too late! If this heartfelt warning is not enough to convince you, I should give you a spoiler alert here, but the philosophical question is "Can garbage spoil? Isn't it already garbage?"
I hate this movie on so many levels, it may be worse than the execrable Cloverfield, a smelly mess of rotting celluloid I already took the Big Ugly Stick to last year after I saw it on DVD.
It's worse than the worst Star Trek movie and the worst Star Wars movie, and those are low bars to limbo under.
It may be as bad as Reign of Fire, a dreadful movie about dragons taking over the earth I saw before I started writing this blog.
There was a Kurt Russell film called Soldier some movie going friends of mine saw without me a few years back, and they came back saying I had made one of the best decisions of my life when I decided to give the flick a pass.
Just to bring balance back to the force, I matched that good decision with the bad decision of spending an afternoon watching District Nine. My disgust of the film is so vast, I will split it into categories just to help me understand the majesty of the film's suckitude in retrospect.
The massively derivative nature: An alien ship arrives on earth and hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. It is not the beginning of an invasion, but instead a ship filled with beings who don't seem to know how to run the ship, apparently a ship filled with menial laborers.
The hovering ship is derivative from Independence Day. The ship of workers is a direct lift from Alien Nation, a film from 1988 turned into a TV series in 1989. The parallels to Alien Nation are many, but if the original film was dark with a ray of hope, this film is filled with despair with a wisp of complete existential meaninglessness. Alien Nation was written by Rockne O'Bannon, who also wrote Alien. The aliens from District Nine combine the arthropod look of creatures from Alien with the plot line of Alien Nation. The result is a film not even a tenth as good as any of the films it steals from.
Dystopia on steroids: You might think Nineteen Eighty Four is a dystopic future. District Nine makes George Orwell look like P.G. Wodehouse. The creatures, besides being as ugly as walking crustaceans, are dim-witted and ill-tempered, as far as humans can tell. They should be a work force, but they live on garbage, not unlike prawns, the creatures they most resemble, so it's a little hard to get them to think about improving their lives when they survive just fine on what we throw away.
Racism that would make D.W. Griffith blush: You might think the guest workers in South Africa angle could be construed as a metaphor for black-white relations in that still troubled land. Don't concern yourself with possible metaphorical racism here. In this movie written by a white South African of Dutch descent, Nigerian gangs are barely better than rabid shaved monkeys.
Human criminal gangs control life in District Nine, and the gangs are immigrants from Nigeria. The problem is that the aliens aren't assimilated into the public sphere, so they would have nothing of value to criminals. The aliens do possess weapons with massive destructive power, but there are DNA locks on the weapons, so no one but an alien can fire them. The Nigerian crime lord is supposed to be so stupid as to think a witch doctor will understand how to break a DNA lock.
To be fair, whites aren't that much smarter. They can't fire the weapons, but in the thirty years the aliens have been around, they haven't figured out how to disassemble the weapons and build versions with human DNA locks.
I am of the opinion that neither black people or white people are quite as stupid as they are portrayed in the movie. On the other hand, the screenwriter and director, Neill Blomkamp, suffers from a level of Rock F*#king Stupidity so intense, it's amazing his brain produces enough energy to keep his legs moving.
(Line stolen from original Superman movie. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor says it about Ned Beatty's character.)
The magic MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is a term from Hitchcock. It is the thing the spies are looking for, and so it move the plot forward. It really doesn't matter if it's a secret plan or uranium or an incriminating sex tape, it's just a plot device. In District Nine, some aliens are indeed smart enough to create the incredible technology they possess on the ship, and we meet a few that have been working to synthesize the fuel they need to get their ship back in to outer space. (Note: a ship bigger than several city blocks has been hovering in place over J'Burg for thirty years. That takes serious energy and technology, but don't expect Neill Blomkamp, advanced R.F.S. sufferer, to figure that out.) The MacGuffin is a Thermos sized canister of fuel that will be enough to get the ship back into space. A human finds it, monkeys with it and gets sprayed in the face with some. This exposure starts the process of turning the human's DNA into alien DNA.
It's a massive energy source! It's an extremely specific mutagen!
It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!
Actually, it's the lamest plot device I've seen in about a half century of watching films and TV.
Some might think I'm just a wuss who doesn't like modern horror. While I don't love the genre, it can be done right. Sean Of The Dead is one of the best comedies of this century. I was completely in love with the ultra-violence in the original RoboCop and Scanners. Who can't help but smile in retrospect over the scene where a Nazi's face melts in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? But this is violence for the sake of violence, a sure sign of R.F.S.
The movie is doing pretty well at the box office, so I expect Blomkamp will get a chance to make a bigger budget movie. If there is any justice, it will be a massive bomb like when studios gave up and coming director Michael Cimino enough money to make Heaven's Gate.
In conclusion, let me say this. Don't see District Nine. If the warden of your chain gang says it's twenty four hours in the sweat box or watching District Nine in an air-conditioned theatre, take the day in the box. The sweating might be good for you, but the movie can't possibly be good for anyone smarter than a flatworm.