Remember Phil Cool? If you sat in front of a British TV in the early 1990s, you probably do. It was obligatory that you had to refer to him as the “rubber-faced” comedian, so twisty were his gurning impersonations. He’s still going, but for a while he was a primetime television fixture; I can well remember one of his jokes, where he mused over why alien invaders in movies always seemed to head for well known landmarks in the most iconic cities on Earth. Why didn’t they arrive in, for instance, Johannesburg? He then mimed a South African welcome party, beckoning with open arms to a flying saucer and calling out: “Don’t be frightened: we’re not going to treat you any different just because you’re green.” District 9 is that joke extruded to feature length.
It’s also probably the only film I can remember that seems to take place entirely at gunpoint. Barely a moment passes that someone isn’t pointing or firing a weapon at someone else. I get the point that it’s a depiction of a pressure cooker environment reaching a deadly state of intensity, but the constant threat is wearing after a while, and I was yearning for some downtime to develop the characters at a pitch below hysteria. Neil Blomkamp shares with his mentor Peter Jackson a high tolerance for mess. There’s no reservation about spraying bodily fluids from a range of outlets. There’s a very variable register, where the gouts of blood, mucus and vomit are either supposed to be shocking, funny or ghosthouse-gross, but the invitation to be entertained by the violence of it all (and almost everything in this film is maximally abrasive), most notably in the cathartic, tooled-up kickass killing spree at the climax, sits uncomfortably in a film that seemed to promise a more serious intent in analysing how ordinary people come to perform acts of oppression on a defenceless underclass.
So, while it’s a riveting and intense viewing experience, it throws away a great opportunity to really problematise the alien invasion genre. The most interesting aspects of the film are those that speculate on how earthlings would really respond to intergalactic visitors: not with flagwaving and synthesiser jingles, but with quarantine and concentration camps, bureaucracy. It shows the aftermath once the initial sense of childlike wonderment has worn off, and humans have let their instincts to control and dominate take over. Some of the responsibility for this unpleasant prediction of close encounters is passed onto a fictional giant corporation, Multi-National United (almost as cartoony as Robocop‘s OmniCorp), absolving the rest of us from the shame of passive acceptance of intergalactic racism. There’s a cowardly wish to palm off the nastier end of the exploitation to Nigerian immigrants making a killing off the aliens’ situation: the eye-rolling witchcraft fanatics who embody the worst excesses of human villainy belong in a different movie, one which isn’t claiming to poke holes in the fabric of humans’ propensity for paranoid stereotyping.
I can’t help comparing it to District 13, which also constructs an action adventure in a locked down ghetto, staging escapes and pitched battles as a visual allegory of contested space and caged bodies: District 13 uses the French banlieue for its allegorical inspiration, and 9 uses apartheid South Africa, 13 uses parkour as its main action ingredient, and 9 builds its conflicts around firepower competitions. There’s room on the market for both films, but a comparison of how they use genre to dramatise otherwise unphotogenic sites of resistance is instructive. I did wonder at first why, if the apartheid allegory is so fully developed as to be utterly blatant, they didn’t just make a film about apartheid, but this must surely be the more commercially viable option. I’m just not quite convinced that, amidst the explosions, it gives enough thinking space to really consider the horrific implications of its theme. Somewhere in there is the idea that alien visitors give humans the chance to momentarily forget about how much they hate each other. The aliens provide a convenient, contained Other upon which they can exercise their power. The cliched revelation that an evil corporation just wants to harness the alien weapons for their own ends is notable only for its extreme familiarity, but the notion of human indifference to the suffering of anyone it can compartmentalise as undeserving is a pertinent one for a drama. But then, even Ronald Reagan knew that alien visitation would be the best thing to bring us all together, united in a utopian dream of universal hatred: