Spoilers for District 9

I think that the first time I saw the movie, sitting in the theatre in August 2009, I was kind of down on the very end, where Wikus doesn’t transform back into a human. Of course, I didn’t fully fathom what the transformation meant. I knew there was allegory, that District 9 was thick was metaphor, and some of it was pretty blatant. But the transformation was a visual metapor, and this was something that didn’t quite connect at the time. The movie ends with Wikus’ wife talking about the alienized hero, and we see him making a flower out of garbage – both are notes of hope, and even though the ending isn’t necessarily ideal for our fast-talking protagonist, we know that the future is bright because one person was able to sympathize with the Prawns.

So what’s more important than the bright future, or even the denoument preceding it, is the ending fight scene. Often laughed off as a cheap action movie third act, giving me flashbacks to the dreary criticisms of Sunshine and its infamous third act, so much happens in the final action sequence, a culmination that explodes with an energy typically lost on modern day SF movies (I’m looking at you, every superhero movie ever made with the exception of Punisher War Zone). This is the quintessential sequence to showcase the expert craftmanship employed by Neil Blomkamp, as it combines all the great editing and camerawork we’ve now gotten used to as established eary on – but there’s a difference, a sense of gravity and weight to everything that is going on.

Van Wikus dons a mech suit and gets Christopher Johnson to safety, and then murders as many hostile PMCs as possible in appropriately angry and gory ways. It’s surprisingly visceral. We feel everything that Wikus does, as he goes on cursing everyone out and firing off lasers and rockets. He’s finally embodied the true essence of empathy and cross cultural understanding: he had long ago crossed the bridge between the worlds of humans and Prawns, but now he is finally able to do something about it – and he’s pissed. That’s what District 9 is all about. It’s a more-than-clever movie that combines sociopolitical philosophy with hard-hitting, unexpected, jaw-dropping entertainment, and does it in such a way where the former is an extension of the other. It works out so well because this movie was a very personal work from director Blomkamp.

It’s not a Ghost in the Shell scenario where action and philosophy sequences are often segregated (often, not always – recall if you will the museum sequence filled to the brim with tiny little metaphors), the ideas are embedded in the actions and events, and these actions and events just so happen to have the polish of top-tier science-fiction action harkening back to 1991. That the culmination of ideas could happen in this moment of rage and chaos and violence and works so beautifully speaks to the general consensus of the movie – nobody saw it coming. The trailers made it look good, but I don’t think that anybody could have guessed just how great it would actually end up.

In fact, let’s for a moment examine the other major science-fiction movie of 2009, something that certainly won’t appear under the “An Appreciation” moniker – Avatar. It was on television today and I was watching the ending war scene like ‘yeah, yeah, this is pretty cool stuff. I love space marines…’ but as it went on I just kept shaking my head and checking my watch (even though I was watching TV). There was something just so idiotic about the whole thing, and I really need to revisit that complicated film. But anyways I realized why I didn’t like the Na’vi, and along with I just like space military better on principle – characterization goes a long way, and it was largely absent here. Such is not the case with District 9. There are no cheap archetypes here, no wise mentors or heroic sacrifices from secondary characters. It’s a film that feels and looks genuine, not overdone and underprepared (somehow).

With Elysium still in development, or late development, we still can only hope that the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ that has claimed so many filmmakers does not extend to Neil Blomkamp, because his debut is in the same league as John Singleton’s and Tarantino’s. It’s not only set a precedent for his career, but for the science-fiction genre, and nearly two years later it has yet to be matched.

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