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Dawn of the forlorn Prawn

District 9 – Neill Blomkamp

The science is risible: the fiction banal. District 9 is a good B movie with pretensions; and like all good B movies, it rattles along at a pace fast enough for you to almost forgive the cheap n’ cheerful costumes, make-up, special effects and frequently clunky dialogue. A docu-drama, hand-held camera style adds a gritty, mock-realist tone as do the talking heads post-hoc set-up interviews that reinforce the journalistic, documentary tone.

A giant alien spaceship about the size of Kensington arrives from outer space and parks itself a few hundred feet above Johannesburg. The ship and its inhabitants, unlike those in the aforementioned London Borough, have no visible means of support but simply hover with no apparent expenditure of energy (parallels there then) from what none-the-less look like rocket pods on the underside of their ship. There is no disturbance of air or ground beneath the ship. It just hangs there – almost as if it were merely a drawing of a spaceship on a fake background.

Mysteriously, the human inhabitants below leave this uninvited guest unmolested, to block out the sun for 3 months before deciding it might be politic to have a butcher’s. Good job the aliens didn’t actually choose Kensington – the bloody thing would have been clamped within a day and towed off to a compound somewhere in 2. Eventually the authorities enter the ship and discover its alien inhabitants are only marginally less weird than those of the Royal Borough. They are wasp-waisted anthropods with wobbly tendrilled faces – the space-travellers not the Kensingtonites. So with that endearing, typically human response to something or someone new, the visitors are christened ‘Prawns’. On discovery, we are told they are emaciated. I just buy into this, having no idea of my own what an emaciated Prawn actually looks like. I mean, all Prawns look pretty emaciated to me, especially those I get in my starter.

With a deplorable deficiency in town and country planning, the Prawns are ferried to the ground immediately beneath their spaceship where of course being alien and unwelcome they are too lazy to work or move on, dependent upon benefits; and so over 20 years, we are told, create a slum township. Urban blight comes no worse than this. Must have kicked the crap out of property values.

Despite some grandiose reviews to the contrary, for me D9 is a technical triumph of form over content. Designer Philip Ivey’s urban wasteland Production Design and Emilia Roux’ Art Direction combine well to generate a grungy Soweto-style township; and Clinton Shorter’s largely edgy soundtrack softens towards the climax of the film into an almost elegiac tone with a single-voiced African half-chant, half-song counterpointing evocatively the images and unsurprising clichéd narrative outcome. The most innovative thing about D9 is the brilliantly successful, on-line viral-marketing that blogged it into a newsworthy opening weekend in the US. Specialist blogs and a cleverly constructed official web site have fed the incipient paranoia of cyber-surfers around the world longing for an idiotically simple but false trivial explanation for serious, real, complex issues. That they found a ready-made market for this tosh in America does not astonish.

D9 began as a neat little idea and a much seen 8 minute film that explored it. Despite a couple of thousand or so people and a bit of money flung at it – it remains a neat idea, made on the relatively cheap, explorable in about 8 minutes, expanded to a tad under 2 hours. Bullet-headed, bullet-brained stereotypical Afrikaans baddies, working of course for a big bad corporation (MNU) outsourcing social control and re-location of unwanted aliens for an acquiescent South African government, take on with gleeful brutality, the mission of removing a couple of million asylum-seekers from another planet. The aliens are assumed to be dirty, immoral, ugly and parasitic – nothing new there then. When nerdy Wikus van de Merwe (brilliantly played by Sharlto Copley), laughably unqualified for the task, is put in charge of the re-location by his evil father-in-law Piet Smit we are signalled the train wreck to come.

Like the class bully put in charge of the gang for a day, Wikus leads the start of the clearance with all the enthusiasm of a bully victim given the power to redirect the punishment from himself to others. Wikus is all misplaced confidence and no competence so, fiddling like a kid with a mysterious canister, manages to squirt the black liquid contents into his face. The guy’s a complete schmuck and everyone except his pretty, pretty unlikely wife “baybee” his word not mine, knows it.

Much pseudo-scientific bulls**t ensues. Wikus, like an anthropodic re-make of The Fly has screwed up his genetics and is turning into a Prawn. Well to be exact a palpably phoney 3-pronged pincer has been clamped over his own arm to represent his transmutation from nerdy human to nerdy Prawn. ‘Wikupod’ – who knows everything, most of it wrong – also suffers from some nicely observed, revolting but cheaply depicted other symptoms like pulling out his own nails and teeth in between projectile vomiting what looks like what Oil refiners call light atmospheric residue – thin, black, smelly and repulsive – but valuable as an energy source.

In one of a number of magic phenomena that pass for science in this so-called science-fiction movie – like hovering a million ton spacecraft with no expenditure of energy – this magic fluid not only eventually powers the spaceship but also genetically transmutes Wikus into a Prawn in about the 4 day timescale of the action. MNU have of course been conducting, without success, medical experiments on Prawns to explain why only Prawns can make their devastating weapons work. They therefore see half-man, half-Prawn Wikus as the key to unlocking the mystery of how to make the Prawn weapons work. Today the Prawn-gun – tomorrow world domination. Until a bunch of extra-terrestrial Lobsters fetch up.

Wikus hides in the only place available – among the Prawns. Once there he hooks up with what I guess we have to call a kind of King Prawn, mysteriously called Christopher which to be honest with no standard of comparison, really doesn’t sound a very Prawny name to me. Chris has a child, an intelligent, endearing little ‘Shrimp’ who alone amongst the cast, or the audience, likes Wikus. How Shrimp came into being is hard to imagine as D9 is an almost totally female-free zone. Not surprisingly. This is speculation on my part of course as sexing Prawns is not part of my skill set. And sticking what look like bras on the upper part of bodies with no discernible breasts doesn’t really convince.

Chris, Shrimp and Wikus hook up to recover the magic fluid about a pint of which has supposedly taken 20 years to accumulate and is the secret of the escape of the Prawns, though where they are going to escape to, given that apparently their own planet is kaput, is not spelled out. To break into the human lab where the fluid is kept Wikus negotiates to buy some Prawn weapons from a gang of gangster Nigerians who have stockpiled them dreaming of eventually making them work. The Nigerians are of course irreducibly criminal and pathologically, credulously stupid, thinking that eating the flesh of the Prawns will magically transfer their power and access to their weapons to the eater. So the Nigerian gang leader wants to dis-arm Wikus and tuck in to a plate of pincer tartare. I’m not going to even try to unpack the underlying racist stereotypes and patronising condescension here but the way some critics have glossed all this beggars belief. D9 has been called a political allegory – forgive me but allegorical my *rse.

I don’t want to get into a theological dispute about the definition of sci-fi as it used to be humbly known, but bolting together about 2 tons of remaindered girders and scrap metal with no visible hydraulics or alternative means of conveying energy to overcome gravity isn’t science fiction – it’s pseudo-science fantasy. Magic. I can suspend disbelief about Star Trek Phasers, or death rays etc but D9 makes everything, guns, spaceship, robotic transformer-like iron suit etc etc look just like our guns only of course much much bigger, our weapons, our robots but then simply magics them into action with mere cinematographic trickery – in this case laughably cheapo, unconvincing trickery. That’s ok for films like the Transformer franchise – we know we’re not supposed to take them seriously.

District 9 has its moments of B movie tension largely generated by clever cinematic skill but it remains for me an 8 minute idea inflated beyond credibility; but worse, it is a cleverly web-hyped, internet marketed product which for all its so-called freshness and innovation, still has a Sony Corporation distribution deal to exploit the viral marketing lift-off. Some way off what the Times critic called a sci-fi classic – despite its Blade Runner rip-off ending.

Corollary: Science-Fiction

This is not intended as a definition: trying to define a ‘genre’ misunderstands the ‘grammar’ of an artistic genre which must remain fluid and be subject to expansion and change over time. This is more an observation.

It is accepted by the genre that Extra Terrestria vistors to our planet are more ‘advanced’ than us. That by advanced we mean technologically advanced is demonstrated first by the fact that they got to us and we couldn’t, yet, get to them. For dramatic purposes we generally, but not always, give them weapons that make them invincible technologically. The fundamental premise of Science-Fiction it seems to me is that however advanced they may be, alien technology must operate in, conform to the same natural world we do – with gravity, friction etc. Science-fiction for me must recognise this limit. This is good, for it is the limit all art needs to generate the imagination and creativity to convince us that this limit can be mastered. This is why Wells’s classic War Of The Worlds is a brilliant work of the imagination for he finds the way to defeat the Martians not in superior weaponry, technology, but through their mortal lack of defense against a tiny organic threat that the smallest human baby posesses. This category distinction is precisely what the recent re-make lacked and despite its many merits, why it could not match the poetic power of the ending of the orginal film based upon Wells’ conception.

Another paradigm – this time from movies. It is said that for its time, in the light of the known science when it was made, Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey was as faithful to known science as any film then or since. Kubrick, like Wells, embraced the known scientific constraints of the natural world and this profoundly affected the visual aesthetic of his film. Just accepting the way people would actually have to move in a weightless enviroment generated a poetic quality to the imagery but was a challenge to the dramatic pace he could achieve. Hence the tone of detachment ‘other-worldliness’ that sets up the final development of the film satisfyingly.

This is why I think District 9 is wrongly called Science-Fiction. Its participants do not credibly overcome the limits of the natural world – no, through the aesthetic misuse of camera technology they are made to just magically act as if the limits don’t exist. Magic for me is fantasy. Nothing wrong with that: but if your narrative is fantasy based why clunk it all up by furnishing your characters with weapons, vehicles, artifacts every one of which looks just like ours but bigger. And magic. That’s lazy fantasy. For fantasy also needs some form of limit, some sense of what apparently cannot be done: without that limit, when the imagination of the artist takes us beyond it and convinces us, we lose precisely the sense of fantasy and thereby precisely what delights, terrifies, entrances us about what we see and hear.

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