Hello allegory, my old friend….
JRR Tolkien, one of the modern pioneers of fantasy fiction himself said “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence”. Personal opinions of him notwithstanding, his distain simply points out how lazy a narrative device such things are; they apply to one instance in time and date accordingly.
So what happens when the allegory is old enough to graduate college?
This is the central conceit within District 9.
Beginning with a constant stream of mock press footage and character interviews concerning the appearance of a large spaceship over Johannesburg in the 1980s. When contact is finally made, the aliens are found to be suffering from malnourishment and in an attempt to help them, they are relocated to makeshift camps that 20 years later, remain standing and heavily enforced by a corporation called M.N.U who have been looking for a way to manipulate the alien technology in their possession. Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copely) whose father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) has promoted to arrange the eviction and relocation of the alien inhabitants of District 9. Wikus is nepotism at it’s worst, ignorant and bigoted, he is both a credulant example of the director’s vision of humankind and it’s last beacon of hope (within the central cast at least).
During the otherwise simple eviction of the alien “prawns”, Wikus is doused with a bio-mechanical fuel that causes him to morph into the species he seeks to be beat down and become a potential research experiment to his former employer. From here, he joins forces with an alien know as Christopher in a rather farcical “buddy movie” formula.
Characters are of little importance to the script, Wikus seems to learn little if anything about himself until the final act and even with that, it seems almost forced, so that the archetypical antihero will redeem himself for the benefit of full closure. We are expected to sympathize with him as if he is the only person who feels anything for this downtrodden race, something reinforced with the one dimensional secondary cast but this is simply not true, we are shown protesters and informed that others in both the city itself and globally care deeply for the treatment of the aliens. Even worse, the Nigerians of the piece are portrayed as cannibalistic, greedy and fueled by redundant superstitions, becoming caricatures and flag bearers for the worst misconceptions of African society.
This does even less to help the leaden allegories which significantly overreach in attempting to portray the worst in human society and subvert the standard practice of wondering “what will they do to us?” when alien visitors arrive; sadly, these same thematic issues destroy any potential for seriously examining “what would we do to them?” as a question. Even the possible examination of corporate greed is half hearted, an empty vessel which with the director, Neill Blomkamp tries to pleasure himself with.
Inevitably, this hampers the action to an alarming degree, making the obviously expensive special effects seem all the more laughable when they occur. It’s also hard to escape the feeling that we’ve seen the alien designs a hundred times before; simple and utilitarian in design, they appear like a lot of human technology within games such as Starcraft and its ilk.
What’s worse of all though, is that Peter Jackson, a man who so clearly idolized Tolkien and went to pains to explain how allegory was a pointless pursuit, would become involved in everything he and his hero sought to stop. Dated and rudimentary, District 9 should be avoided by all those who loathe lowest common denominator productions presenting themselves as haute couture.