District 9 and the Documentary Style

I finally got around to watching District 9, and for the most part I enjoyed it.  So often movies with premises that center around social issues have problems maintaining profluence (see A Day Without A Mexican), but District 9 managed to shoehorn in an extensive criticism of humanity while keeping the story moving.

My biggest problem with D-9 was the point of view.  The movie starts off as a faux documentary and then transitions into a more traditional omniscient camera POV, an unusual choice.  Most faux-docs maintain the documentary POV for the sake of realism, and leaving it behind felt jarring.

I understand the urge to use the faux-doc style.  It allows for info-dumps and exposition that are out of place when simply being spewed from a character in what is meant to be “natural” dialogue.  In a movie like D-9, the style allowed for a rather dense premise to be established quickly.

However, Blomkamp then ran into the problem of needing to follow the protagonist’s story through situations where documentarians would not naturally be tagging along with their cameras.  So the movie starts to shuffle between the documentary and the…well…the movie.

Multiple POVs are common in movies – nearly ever action movie in existence shifts between the hero and the villain, building the story from each side of the central conflict.  However, this sort of shift never switches off the fourth wall. The documentary style represents the camera as an entity that’s present in the story of the movie, while the traditional camera is an invisible observer, a true fourth-wall.  Shifting between the two feels a bit unsettling to me.

Also, the shift doesn’t serve any function.  There’s nothing relevant to the progression of the story, the building of tension, or the exploration of the movie’s themes in this shift.  Perhaps if the documentary were rabidly pro-MNU and anti-Wikus, while the “movie” POV told Wikus’ story, swapping back and forth between the two would have felt important – or at least excusable.  But since the documentary style is meant to enhance the sense of realism, abandoning it only served to remind me of the unreality of movies.  It was very jarring for me to realize that the documentary had been left behind, that I was watching things happen that were part of, essentially, a separate movie.

And that’s the problem, District 9 is two movies: a faux documentary and a traditional sci-fi action/adventure flick.

In the end, I wish the movie had simply gone one way or another – either finding a way to cram the exposition into dialogue and action, or managing to keep the documentary camera with the protagonist throughout the story.


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