Watch District 9 as a palate cleanser after the visual feast of Avatar. Many of the themes are the same, but the South African film’s more-with-less attitude has an emotional punch that those beautiful blue creatures can’t offer.
Again, we have civilization vs. so-called savages. Again, the military-industrial complex assumes its superiority and offering false salvation in bureaucracy. Again, a white man is transformed into other. But how long has it been since a film asked us to sympathize with a creature neither cute nor cuddly? The “prawns” are large, insectoid and frankly gross, hard to tell apart and hardly understood. Obviously they are a commentary on our perception of other cultures (am I not supposed to admit I didn’t want to look at them?), but the movie doesn’t apologize for their appearance. How long since our hero refused to save anyone else’s skin? We think we are getting another white messiah, but our expectations of a mass uprising are put off, perhaps due to budget, perhaps due to storytelling restraint. When every CGI film includes an obligatory march of thousands, the wow factor wears off. How long since we saw so much dirt and junk and garbage on screen? There’s a black market in cat food. Cat food! In Avatar it would have to be floating blue space goo, explained to us very seriously as the future equivalent of cat food. District 9 is happening in our supermarket space.
The first 45 minutes are District 9’s most political (the incisiveness of the Gazan/South African political critique begins to fade into action as the movie progresses) and also its funniest. There is a sustained tone of dry humor, wonderful underplaying by Sharlto Copley as our hapless hero Wikus Van De Merwe (just try saying that out loud), redeployment of the faux-documentary form from The Office. After that some of the cost-cutting starts to show, with too-quick rescues and too-confusing shoot-outs. The sentimental conventions are supported by the cleverness of Little Prawn, the gross-out conventions with lots of body parts. District 9 is very clever, and little of it feels like showing off.