Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Film Review: District 9

Say it three times: There is no genre like science fiction. There is no genre like science fiction. There is no genre like science fiction.

And films like District 9 are proof. Continuing a stellar run of speculative fiction over the last few years (Fountain, Moon, Children of Men) District 9 strikes that perfect balance of tickling our brains while tormenting our hearts. All the great action/adventure cliches are here to drive the plot along, but the filler, the satire of the human condition, is really what sets this film apart.

In fact, if I have one beef with District 9, it’s that it descended into too much straight-out action flick toward the end. I felt like Michael Bay directed about 15 minutes of the movie that would’ve been best left on the cutting-room floor. The pointless showdown with the stereotypical “military badass” was a bit of a bump, but the film already had enough mass and momentum before this point to carry it right through to a wonderful conclusion.

Bad stuff out of the way, I can’t begin to say enough about what was done wonderfully. The acting was absolutely superb. This film demonstrates the crucial need to stop using big-name actors in every single film. Not knowing a single performer meant I didn’t need to suspend disbelief to sink into the film’s world. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Leonardo Dicaprio… any one of them would have ruined this film and added $15 mil. to the budget. There’s enough talent out there, perhaps we should make better movies and spread the royalties around, what say?

There I go, getting negative again. Maybe it’s the mood the film left me in. The anger at our dependable foibles. The sad way in which we’re destined to repeat our pathetic behaviors in ever-expanding spheres of ethical ineptitude. It reminds me of the history of astronomy, how we learned that planets were like Earth, that stars were like our sun, that nebula were like our galaxy (and currently, we balk at the idea of multiple universes, as if we’ve finally nailed our place in the cosmos).

Our ethical failures seem to follow a similar pattern. Sure, in the future blacks and whites work side-by-side. But the anger, the tribalism, the prejudice… none of it has been overcome. It’s just been redirected. For the critics panning this film for being racist, you’ve missed the point. This film is about how we, as a species, are judgmental to this very day. And while we’re dislocating our shoulders to pat our own backs for Obama, with the other hand we’re flipping off people for being ignorant Republicans or stupid Democrats.

Are we really better just because we’ve moved on from skin color to other labels of reflexive hate? Or is it worse because we’ve become smug with ourselves while repeating the same behaviors? There’s a bit of hypocrisy to be found here, and District 9 captured it perfectly.

Another thing this film nailed was the CGI. Nailed it, countersunk the nails, patched the holes, gave it two skim-coats (with some 800-grit sanding between applications) and then brushed on two thick coats of expensive eggshell paint. The result was CGI you couldn’t tell was CGI. And the key was the incredible length they went in matching the lighting between the rendered and the shot. I’m worried this film won’t win several of the awards it deserves because it was all done so well that they made it look easy.

Here’s the only thing I’m left wondering as I walk away from the film: why doesn’t science fiction get the credit to go with the love? I mean, seriously… it’s obvious that the genre is cherished by more people than any other. Look at the popularity of the franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, Predator, Alien, Matrix, BSG. And those are just the series. I can think of twenty standalones that knocked socks off. So, why the hate? Why shelve our books with fantasy novels? Why make fun of people that learn Klingon?

Okay, that is pretty creepy.

Honestly, though, from Gulliver’s Travels on down, science fiction provides the best platform for entertaining and elucidating. Why? Because the satire is askew, rather than direct. It makes you do a little work. The viewer has to put some of the pieces together themselves. All other fiction is akin to rote memorization as it bludgeons us with “love your spouse” or “achieve greatness” or “become a better person.” Yeah, these are great themes, but so much more powerful when WE put them together rather than having the writer/director insert them into our stomach via our colons.

District 9 did this extremely well. It made me think during the film and I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about it for weeks to come. For me, it created another layer of my slowly-expanding moral scope. It demonstrated, just as the nebulae became galaxies, that I need to constant expand my mind in order to truly judge my (and our) ethical progress. I think we all need to zoom out in order to hone in on where we stand on many issues. I’m not sure what we should be finding, but that’s the beauty of speculative fiction… we aren’t handed easy answers, just difficult questions.

Maybe, and I’m not saying I’m right, but maybe it’ll be something like the horror we perpetuate by eating animals. I’m an eager, chin-dripping, rare-as-you-please carnivore, so it’s hard to posit this: but maybe we’ve been aiming for inclusion across our species and missing another level of ethical consideration. Could the fact that we hide the production of our meat from ourselves give us a hint? Could our rationales: “it’s good for us”; “it tastes great”; “it’s natural” be seen in the same light as the justifications for slavery just two hundred years ago? Again, I’m not saying this is the right place to go…

…I’m just speculating.

1 reply to “Film Review: District 9”

Comments are closed.