It isn’t difficult to understand why District 9, a South African film directed by Neill Blomkamp was nominated for Best Picture in the expanded category at this year’s Oscars. It is an exciting film that does some amazing things with special effects, especially in representing the alien ‘prawns,’ and the whole point of doubling the field from five films to ten was to allow such crowd pleasers into competition in order to make the awards seem more relevant. I watched the film last week, and while I see why others are so fond of it, I was slightly disappointed by the way the film’s narrative was executed.
Twenty years before film’s beginning, a huge spacecraft appeared and stationed itself directly over Johannesburg. An exploratory team discovers over a million sick and starving members of an alien people who have no leader. Morality being what it is, the people of South Africa began to care for this leaderless population, and set up a section just outside of town and directly underneath the ship called District 9. Flash forward twenty years and the place is a slum, a horrible place inhabited by creatures that are rendered as disgusting and animalistic. A drain on the economy of Johannesburg and a source of great angst for the citizens, a decision is made by the government and military corporation Multinational United (MNU) to move the 1.8 million aliens to a new camp 200 kilometers away. Tasked to lead this relocation is Wikus Van De Merwe, played engagingly by Sharlto Copley, a field operative from MNU.
All this is established within the first ten minutes. What seems like a ridiculous amount of exposition is crafted into the main narrative through the device of the documentary. A series of interviews and broadcasts, taking place after the film’s main timeline is complete, provide the viewer with all the information listed above. These interviews not only set the stage for the story to play out, they also provide a richness that makes the story more believable, answering questions like where the rest of the world stands on the alien issue and other concerns necessary for verisimilitude but outside the needs of the film’s narrative. News reports form Johannesburg, complete with cameramen on the ground with Wikus as he serves notice of the evictions to the aliens as well as overhead shots common to anyone watching a breaking story on cable news, provide us with the bulk of the first act. However, even while most of the first act is shown from this perspective, Blomkamp breaks from this conceit into classical film narrative in order to introduce two aliens who are preparing some sort of mysterious black fluid, which Wikus later finds and is accidentally sprayed with.
Straying from the idea that the audience is only privy to the information being shown because it was recorded feels like a misstep to me, though it is near impossible to imagine how Blomkamp would have presented the rest of the story if he hadn’t. The aliens have weapons that have some sort of biological lockout, meaning they can’t be used by humans. After being exposed to the black liquid, Wikus’s arm begins to change into that of the aliens, making him capable of firing these weapons and of great interest to MNU, the evil military corporation run by, coincidentally enough, Wikius’s father-in-law. It’s understandable that the story moving in such a direction necessitates the shift away from the documentary format, but because Blomkamp presented so much of the early parts of the movie through this perspective, the change feels a bit jarring, at least to this viewer. By transitioning from the documentary to the news report to the omniscient eye of film, he loses some of the magic that drew me into his story.
In the third act, Wikus escapes MNU and teams up with the alien who created the black liquid in order to retrieve it so he can return to the mothership and restore Wikus to human form. Without giving away the film’s ending, Blomkamp returns to the documentary device at the conclusion, with journalists and others speculating on the questions left at the end of the narrative, some of which is dramatic irony since the audience knows things that the citizens watching such a documentary wouldn’t.
Perhaps it is not the choice to move from documentary to news report to classical film narrative and then back again that irks me, but rather the lack of a segue to ease the viewer into the changes. District 9 presents itself in the first act as being a narrative composed of previously recorded material (in the film’s universe) only to drop it abruptly and embrace a classical style. As I said before, it is near impossible to conceive of how the film would change had Blomkamp stayed with the documentary format, so I don’t fault him for going the way he did; it is a good film, and one worth seeing.