I have some good news and some bad news – District 9 is at once a whole lot smarter and a whole lot dumber than just about everyone would have you believe.

start with the smart, since co-writer/director/creator Neill Blomkamp
does. Yes, the film heavily invokes the apartheid that formally
separated blacks from whites in South Africa for almost fifty years.
But that’s not a particularly “smart” idea. It’s a clever idea, but it
doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with that (especially since
it’s been done before). It is, however, an interesting way of
expressing a lot of the thoughts and feelings Blomkamp must have from
growing up under Apartheid, and (this is where the smart comes in) he
goes all the way with his idea. Mild spoilers do follow, but I can’t
think of a science fiction world this fully realized since Alfonso
Cuaron’s shoulda-been-revolutionary Children of Men.

easy to come up with the idea for aliens landing on Earth and humans
shoving them into a ghetto. It’s another thing to make the first
twenty-thirty minutes basically a documentary about that area. It’s on
a whole other planet to come up with interspecies prostitution as a
major problem within District 9, the slum the aliens are relegated to.
It’s that level of detail that brings this world alive, makes it tick.
And the first half an hour is brilliant. We’re introduced to Wikus van
der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley, in a tremendous performance), who,
without explaining too much, is basically a government employee tasked
with evicting the aliens from District 9 to a new, more restrictive

Wikus, at least at the start, is the kind of character we
could use more of in mainstream entertainment. Unlikable on nearly
every level except for the fact that he’d probably be nice to you if he
were your neighbor, Wikus is the sort of friendly bigot who believes he
treats the aliens with basic respect, all the while exhilarated when he
gets the chance to order the abortion of hundreds of alien fetuses.
With a flamethrower. He’s the guy from the IRS who smiles when he comes
to audit you. He might say he’s just doing his job, but you know

And, you know, if it weren’t for the fact that,
through the mix of documentary aesthetics and cinema vérité, the film
so fervently announces itself as some new, exciting, different, fresh,
and relevant, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointed with
the turn in takes around the beginning of act two.

As I felt the film slowly shift from its docudrama to the same outline as Michael Bay’s The Island,
I felt a profound disappointment. Suddenly, Wikus, a desk-jockey
bureaucrat, becomes an action hero. Suddenly, the chase is on.
Suddenly, there’s a villain, for god’s sake, and not a terribly good
one – just a soldier leading an elite death squad (and not a terribly
good death squad). You know, just like in The Island. And while execution always trumps conception, for a film that touted itself as not just different and fresh, but actively intelligent, the shift from political thriller to routine action movie is a really, really dumb move.

don’t get me wrong…Neill Blomkamp isn’t just a clever man, but a damn
good director. In a year that has given us everything from the
purposefully abstract (Public Enemies) and the accidentally incoherent (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)
in our action movies, a first-time director using a handheld aesthetic
crafted a totally readable film full of genuinely thrilling action set
pieces. That they’re trapped in a misfire of a screenplay is
unfortunate, but I have high hopes for Blomkamp’s future. Just as long
as he doesn’t buy into the hype that now surrounds him.