To those of you who have just looked at the rating and are now outraged by its disparity with the international critical consensus, allow me to explain first. I think District 9 is a very good film, and if I had watched District 9, I would probably have given that film a full two stars higher. However, the film we’re getting in our cinemas is not District 9. It is a PG-13 version of the film that has been cut to pieces. This is one of my biggest disappointments of the year, because as it turns out, there’s a frightening amount of good in the film. It’s all just marred by a pretty terrible decision.
Twenty years ago, a large extraterrestrial craft arrived on Earth above Johannesburg, South Africa. The craft contained over one million prawn-like aliens, and not knowing what to do with them, the government had them contained in a slum called District 9. In the years since, the people have grown hostile towards the aliens, and want them out of the city. WIkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is an employee of Multinational United, the corporation tasked with relocating the aliens. Wikus is happy to be doing his job, but accidental exposure to an alien compound is turning him into an alien himself, making him an outcast and a fugitive. Wikus must seek help from the aliens of District 9 in order to find a cure for his condition.
District 9 is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly stale atmosphere of blockbuster filmmaking. The movie is the kind of intelligent science fiction that has largely disappeared from the big screen; the thinking being that people no longer have the patience for things like character development or allegory. Here, writer/director Neil Blomkamp, who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid, re-contextualizes the usual alien invaders story using elements from his country’s darkest periods in history. Blomkamp uses reality as his starting point, grounding this fantastic story with little details that lend credence to everything that’s going on. There are a few narrative shortcuts taken along the way, but overall, it’s a phenomenal little story. Sharp political commentary lines the fringes of the tale, but for the most part, it can be enjoyed purely for the journey taken by the film’s lead character. Part of the genius of the movie is that the protagonist is no hero. And I don’t mean he’s the grim-and-gritty anti-hero of the last three decades. He’s really the most unlikely of heroes: a middle-management shlub who gets by thanks to being well connected, oftentimes selfish and wrongheaded, motivated more by his own well-being than some abstract concept of the right thing to do. Of all the details Blomkamp has provided, the character of Wikus is the most grounding. Much of his appeal also comes from the actor portraying him, Sharlto Copley. Copley makes everything that his character is thinking visible on his face. He really brings home the horror of his character’s ordeal, making him sympathetic even though Wikus is really kind of a tool. There aren’t many other performances to talk about. Some of the supporting cast goes way over the top, but the smaller moments of the film make up for it.
The movie plays out like a faux-documentary, mixing interviews and news reports with rough handheld footage. It’s all shot very well, and it creates an immersive experience that makes everything feel that much more real. Or at least, it would, if the movie wasn’t rated PG-13. The movie, rated R in the states for language and violence, arrives in our theaters a sanitized PG-13, cutting out much of the exploding bodies. Cutting down an R-rated film to PG-13 will always be a mistake, but it’s particularly wrong for this film. Films that primarily use handheld cinematography rely on the continuous movement of the camera to immerse the audience. The cuts absolutely destroy some of this film’s action sequences, and that’s a travesty, because from what I saw, they were actually good.
The local rating for District 9 places me in a dilemma, because I feel like I haven’t seen District 9. I’ve seen a strange PG-13 film with a pretty great story, one with strong characters, smart plotting, and even a smattering of sharp political commentary, all tied together with decent effects and speedy filmmaking. But every now and then, just as the action moves towards a crescendo, there will be an abrupt jump that utterly shatters my immersion in the film. I have no doubt in my mind that District 9 is a great film. This movie coming into our cinemas, however, is not District 9.