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PARSING THE MEANINGS OF NEIL BLOMKAMP’S DISTRICT 9

by
in Filmmaking
on Aug 15, 2009

Unlike many critics, I liked the $30 million South African-shot sci-fi feature District 9 better as it went along, finding the apartheid metaphor set-up a little awkward and unrewarding. The more I thought about it, the more I found some of the movie’s strategies kind of contradictory to its implied social conscience. But the film works as a straight-out action film, which why its is looking like this week’s box-office winner. It’s easy to get off on the movie’s pulp-y energy and a vibe that reminded me of Robocop and the first Terminator movie.

For a discussion of the metaphors of District 9, I recommend you head over to Blockbuster at L Magazine, which consists of a long dialogue between Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart entitled, “What’s That in the Sky? Is it a Spaceship? No, it’s a Metaphor!” They hash all this out in fascinating detail. It’s the only piece of film criticism I can think of that references South Park, the Old Testament, Franz Kafka, and Gary Shandling.

Two excerpts. First, from Stewart:

So, Ben, the director of District 9, the fairly ambitious, sometimes fake-documentary about extraterrestrial settlements in South Africa and accompanying government perfidy, has been making the rounds, telling reporters his film is an allegory for apartheid. It’s unusual for a filmmaker to be so blunt about his film’s Meaning: it seems to imply that Blomkamp is a bit desperate to establish that his is a Serious Film—that the blockbuster-of-the-week guise is but a mere trapping.

That proves to be more of an albatross than a virtue: because District 9 packs some social-issues seriousness into its sci-fi wackiness, I’m tempted to hold it to a higher standard than it could live up to; the movie is superlative popcorn fare, but disappointing Cinema: wouldn’t you agree?

I think part of it might have to do with the Mississippi Burning Problem: Blomkamp tries to tell the story of an oppressed minority—the E.T.s—not through their own eyes but through the story of one of the oppressors—the humans. Not that, here, it’s something to be offended about, but it may serve as a hint as to why the film doesn’t quite work. Our protagonist, Wickus (the capable Sharlto Copley, in his feature debut), is a mid-level bureaucrat for Multi National United (take that multinational corporations!); he’s less an everyman than a schmuck, and not really a serviceable entry point into Blomkamp’s thoroughly realized alternate reality.

And, later in the conversation, from Sutton:

This brings up another of District 9’s most obvious intertexts: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The despicable Wickus — imagine The Office’s Michael Scott transposed into a situation where he decides the fates of millions and his racist behavior is encouraged rather than awkwardly tolerated — is a perfectly Kafkaesque bureaucratic peon who begins to transform into the thing that disgusts him most. Of course, Blomkamp has neither the guts to abandon his hero to fate as Kafka did, nor the masochistic glee to hone in on the transformation’s unpleasant psychological toll, as David Cronenberg did in The Fly. This is a blockbuster, after all, and though it’s nice to see an action film that puts its politics front and center after so many damaging “apolitical” movies this summer, it’s hard (as you noted) not to hold Blomkamp to a higher standard because of his self-conscious foregrounding of subtext.

Over at First Showing, Alex Billington has a detailed account of the 380-day promotional saga that led up to the opening, and at Dork Shelf there’s a whole host of embeds of Blomkamp’s commercial work.

Here’s Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp’s short that kickstarted the project:

And here’s Blomkamp’s short for Halo 3, the aborted project that led him and producer Peter Jackson to shift gears and expand Alive in Joburg into a feature.

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