Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'District 9': I'll be damned, good action movies are possible!
I saw this week’s Pop Culture Club assignment, District 9, right after returning from two weeks vacation spent in a pastoral New England town with no internet and little TV. I spent most of my time reading books; the most action-packed thing I observed was the extreeeeeme hatching of sparrow eggs in a nest above our porch. So by the time I returned to New York, my senses had retracted back to circa-1983 level of sensitivity, averse to shrieking movie speakers and quick-cut, bombastic special effects. When the lights in the theater dimmed, I was immediately screamed at by a series of howlingly assaultive trailers, each one more jaggedly abrasive than the last: Halloween 2, Sorority Row, The Fourth Kind—I don’t remember which was which, because they all blurred into one screaming, flashing, mash-up of rage that I’m pretty sure wished me ill. By the time the theater ad came on telling everyone to please be quiet (to which I thought, “Practice what you preach, movie theater!”), I thought I’d made a terrible mistake by coming as I was in no mood for two hours of booming violence.
But it turns out I just wasn’t in a mood for bad booming violence. District 9, on the other hand, was a pleasure. I reveled in every sense-jangling, skin-molting moment. By the time it was over, I was thinking, “Take your fresh air and crickets and suck it, New England! I want noise and exploding heads!” Score one for 2009.
What with the summer of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe, I had forgotten that good action movies were possible, that you could sit down and get lost in an engaging maelstrom for two hours without the deep suspicion that the director thinks you are a complete idiot and is at that very minute sitting behind you snickering at you. It’s not even like District 9 reinvented anything: It’s been praised for its apartheid metaphor, but pairing an alien with a hateful human to make a commentary on racism is nothing new (Enemy Mine, Alien Nation). And many other points in District 9 made me think of other movies: Wikus biting off his own fingernails (The Fly); the giant machine-gunning exoskeleton (Aliens); two cackling militiamen happily helicoptering in to do some damage (Die Hard). And yet even when the movie briefly called to mind other films, at no point did it feel trite. That’s the difference between the director, Niell Blomkamp, and, say, Michael Bay: One uses familiar tropes to create something new, and the other assumes you’ll be happy with the familiar tropes just as long as he turns up the volume loud enough.
Sure, I occasionally had small quibbles: Why did Wikus lock Christopher out of his own rescue ship and take off without him? I know he was peeved at the news that his transformation would take three years, but that’s certainly a lot quicker than Wikus could have pulled it off alone, what with him having no freaking idea how to do it himself…let alone having no idea how to drive said spaceship. That’s like me locking an airplane captain out of the cockpit because he won’t take me to Bermuda—it seems like a good idea until I have to take the wheel.
And yet these quibbles vanished in seconds before I submerged back into the movie, which is the mark of an effective action movie. I’m always infuriated when, in response to my rants about the preposterousness of a blockbuster, someone says, “Why are you nitpicking this? You have to suspend your disbelief.” I am more than happy to suspend my disbelief: Never once during The Matrix did I say, “Dodging bullets? You, sirs, have insulted my intelligence for the last time!” If the story carries me along, I’ll go right along with it; it’s only when it starts getting lazy that I have time to stop and see the plot holes. I’ll buy any Indiana Jones stunt in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I was gritting my teeth in rage when he hid in a fridge to avoid a nuclear bomb in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I left District 9 feeling energized about the possibility of cinema: Innovative and surprising action movies can be made! The edge of my seat is a viable place to sit! But a few moments later, however, I thought back to the raft of trailers I’d seen advertising all the screamy crap coming to a theater frighteningly near me over the next few months. I remembered just how rare a good thrill ride is. Man, now I need cheering up: anybody got a trash flower?
So let’s discuss: what did you think about District 9? Where do you rank it in the pantheon of great action movies? And where do you stand on suspension of disbelief in a popcorn film? Are you one of those people who think that as long as the effects are good enough, you’ve got your money’s worth, or do you need something more? And is that the most leading question since, “Are you a dummy who is okay with dumb things, or do you like them to be smart, like you?”
Before we jump into it, let’s give next week’s assignment: It’s the end of the summer, and with school and fall lurking around the corner, let’s have one last cathartic vacation by renting…Chevy Chase’s original Vacation. Not only will it serve as a tribute to writer John Hughes, but it will also allow me to get into my grand theories on Chevy Chase’s downward curve of funniness. There will be charts and graphs.
Okay, what did you think about District 9?