Fans of the Coen brothers will argue that their prankster jests and fondness of classic genres are what make them great. Avoiding the surface, some scholars have looked into the brothers’ use of region and place to pull out broad claims about their work – a useful pursuit, if too micro-critical at times.
But I’d argue that the Coens’ genius lies in their ability to blend the humorous with the terrifying. While their humor distracts us, we get snared by the suspense or terror lurking behind it. This technique is hard to pinpoint during the first viewing of “Fargo” – as with “No Country for Old Men,” which may grow to be the Coens’ masterpiece – since the experience is just too entertaining and profound to reflect upon. By the second, it is an undisputed fact. Undoubtedly technical and precise, the Coen brothers produce handiwork that swells into artistry. They have varied this style in their best work; even if they revise it over the next few decades, it will remain as fresh as Hitchcock’s innocent who has to prove his innocence.
It may seem like hyperbole to begin commentary on a debut film with such a discussion. But “District 9,” written (with Terri Tatchell) and directed by South African newcomer Neill Blomkamp, shows a Coenian ease at blending playful humor with severe social commentary. I could argue Blomkamp’s technique to be more important than the Coens’, who are committed to having fun with masterful filmmaking skills at their disposal. Beneath “District 9” lies a political, humanistic message that the Coens would never touch. Admittedly not their interest, such ideology may be beyond their reach.
Blomkamp’s commentary begins with a sly genre revision – “District 9” fuels itself by continually upturning conventions. The faux doc method – really fresh, if you can believe it – deploys an alien invader vessel with the size and intimidation of “Independence Day’s” death pods. Yet this ship – the only one hovering over earth, unlike in the other film – turns out to be a rotting cocoon, in which a population of creatures withers near death. Using helicopters that swarm about the alien vessel like moths around a whale carcass, Johannesberg authorities remove the aliens from the ship, and Blomkamp depicts the action to comment on liberal imperative without focus. The aliens are delivered to a fenced area of huts, the eponymous district, a temporary solution which over the years becomes a ghetto. Here the aliens are termed “prawns.” They are powerful beings with devastating weapons, though lack the knowledge and imperative to use them. Instead they scavage (as their pejorative name suggests), visit human prostitutes, mix with organized crime from the outside.
In the film’s premise alone, we see genre convention revised to plunge the psychology and ramifications of a marginalized group. If we look beneath the symbols, these crab-like, upright beings – the products of some fine CGI and amusing in their own right – we see a dark subtext: how the disenfranchised is subjected to poisonous aid. We laugh so much that the grave issue slides right in – pleasure-seeking summer audiences are fully disarmed.
The authorities, working under the moniker Mulitnational United (MNU), serve up ironic humor when mixing with the “prawns.” The officials move with an urgency that turns their sensitivity off, effectively drawn by the film’s breakneck pace and some snappy mock interview clips. The playfulness turns more serious when a program to relocate the “prawns” gets underway. The “prawns” head to a cleaner field of tents with even less space and amenities – essentially, a new ghetto that’s just more corporate. The childlike beings don’t even know to resist, but just fall to their knees when muscled and not understanding the evacuation procedure. It’s a heartbreaking sight that reminds us Blomkamp has nothing but humanity in his metaphorical sights.
The narrative settles in on Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a MNU higher-up whose marriage gets him a promotion. He leads the relocation with enthusiasm and what appears to be honesty – we can’t fault him for his clueless moves. Soon enough, he begins to sink into the “Prawn” mess and cannot escape. To reveal more would spoil the satisfaction of this maniacal, fervent work of popular art. But settle with this: SF-horror fans will love the allusion that fuels this new story development and metaphor. His new place in this political and humanitarian crime draws him to one prawn called Christopher Johnson who, suitably, is the most human character in the film.
We have no clue how or why the population of this race landed, near death, at our doorstep. Christopher just wants to return home and save his ghettoized race. He’s assisted by Wikus, to a final confrontation that picks up another SF-horror allusion to grander effect than the source material. At its core, “District 9” features a man who comes close to and aids one who was originally distant to him – a template used in many sappy films. The humanity of “District 9” adds another dimension to this multilayered, rewarding work – one of the best of the summer, and undoubtedly the most inventive from the multiplex this year.