Monday, August 17, 2009

I Speak Prawn Fluently

So I saw District 9 on Sunday and well...

I wouldn't say I was disappointed, I would say that I just wasn't amazed.

The documentary format was well done, but it was also one of the film's weaknesses. The problem with the Quaratines and Cloverfields of the film world is that you can only buy the documentary technique for so long. At some point there are just places that the story goes where it doesn't make sense for the camera to tag along. In Quarantine, there's NO WAY the camera guy walks into the rooms he does in real life. But the technique demands that he does, so the whole point of the realistic documentary style is lost. Perhaps Blomkamp was aware of this, because he attempts to mix and match docu-style with good old fashioned dramatic storytelling. But it's a tall order to switch like that. To one moment be seeing it as real life, and then dramatically the next. And I'm not sure it works. Especially when we start to delve into alien life a bit deeper. To me, the story works if we keep knowledge at a distance. Much like gathering footage from watching the news. There is a base of knowledge that we can gather, but it isn't the real scoop. And the fun is in wondering what the deeper story is. Once we begin to understand what the aliens are thinking and where their motivations lie, the technique and the story begins to fall apart.

The film is not without its strengths, however. The effects were fantastic and for a rookie directorial effort, I think Blomkamp shows great promise. And if I put it up against the other summer dreck thus far, its stock rises considerably.

But here's my bigger beef with the film. In every scene, the humans can communicate perfectly with the aliens. We see subtitles (note to Jason and Ed, I wonder if they will offer the DVD with dubs in English?), yet the humans understand everything. Every whizz, rattle and click. And I'm thinking to myself, how is that so? How can that happen? Yes it's true that the aliens have been established in Johannesburgh for 18 years, but the relationship is so strained between them and the humans, when did someone bother to understand what they were saying? And if they did, how did it happen? To me, that's an interesting story. One I would have liked to see.


Kramer said...

Click click, wizz, urble, grunt, click, wizz wizz. Burble, click, click urble.

Click wizz, urble, grunt, click, wizz wizz. Click, click gurble.

PIPER said...

Excuse me sir. I speak Prawn.

Chomp don't want no help, chomp don't get no help.

Moviezzz said...

I was bothered by the same thing.

I kept wondering if they had some sit down with a prawn and worked it out

"Ok, two clicks equal an A, burble click cluck is a B"

I spent a lot of time thinking about that since the film was so uninvolving, for me at least.

elgringo said...

My biggest problem with D9 was the depiction of the Nigerians (as one big street gang of black magic performing cannibals).

Also, the father and son prawn characters are extremely flat and one-dimensional.

The lead character has been criticized for being unlikable but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. He's extremely selfish and not that personable but I thought that it made the narrative more interesting and the ending more justified.

Ed Howard said...

You know, I thought about that too. I think it was mainly the MNU guys and the Nigerians who spoke Prawn, though, which makes sense since they were the ones who dealt with the aliens in various ways.

Personally, I think they wimped out by not doing the whole movie in unsubtitled Prawn. Why make things easy?

PIPER said...


To me, I thought that they attempted to dramatize the father and son prawn was troublesome. Felt a bit like Jar Jar to me.


A complete movie spoke only in Prawn? That's ballsy.

And by the way everyone, can we stop being such alien bigots by calling them Prawns?

Emily Blake said...

I think if Blomkamp had used the shaky cam on documentary footage and steady cam on drama footage it would have worked. And it wouldn't have made me want to throw up so much.

I loved the film. The documentary thing you mentioned was really my only problem with it. There was some suspension of disbelief, but nothing that can't be explained in a logical way.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good thoughts. The language thing was something I was aware of but that didn't bother me, as I was too annoyed with other elements. That said, that's yet another way that I didn't understand the "rules" of what was going on -- was there a language barrier, could humans read prawn writing, were the prawns evil or just misunderstood, etc. There are ways in which you get the feeling the aliens have been around for decades (the language) and ways in which it seems they only recently arrived (they don't seem to have advanced too far on that weapons testing, do they?).

PIPER said...


Actually the language thing didn't strike me as odd until a day after. But it's just scratching the surface of all the innacuracies in this film.

And I agree that you never truly got a sense that they had lived with these aliens for decades.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

They had 20 years to learn the language, and it seemed that the only reason the main character could understand it fluently was because he was becoming a prawn. Otherwise most exchanges were in the tone of voice you use when talking to an Indian on a help line.

I was amazed by this movie, but it played to all of my weaknesses; voodoo included.

PIPER said...


But the main character understood it before he started changing into a Prawn.

Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing as Ed, that the ones who knew Prawn were the people who worked directly with them - MNU operatives and the Nigerian gangsters. I doubt random other people could understand them.

I enjoyed the movie a lot, but the thing that bothered me more than the language was the range of alien...intelligence, I guess is the closest thing I'm going for. Most of them seem basically like animals, scrounging around junkyards for scraps of meat. But they can apparently deal with the Nigerians for what they want. And Christopher Johnson is extremely smart. Is he like some elite kind of prawn scientist? Or is he just the only one we get to see for enough time to establish that he actually has a brain?

Can they only make marks on the eviction notices because they aren't physically capable of writing in any form (unlikely, since Christopher Johnson builds an entire chemical lab in his house)? Can't just be that they're all uneducated from living in the slums - after only twenty years, there'd still be enough of the original aliens from the ship that we should've seen more of them than just Johnson.

PIPER said...


Thanks for commenting.

Good points all around, but you made a good argument to why I couldn't completely embrace the film. Too many innacuracies.

Chris Voss said...

Was I alone in thinking how outrageous it was that our first alien contact is left to be managed by South Africa for 20 years, without even a hint of presence or interest from any other country on Earth?

Emily Blake said...

Jandy, I think the varying intelligence makes perfect sense, and in part is the point of the film.

Look at humans. If you go into South Central in a Latino neighborhood, some of our illegal immigrants have learned English. Some never do. Some are barely literate. Some are smart as hell. And many of those with the capacity to learn never do because of the social pressures and poverty around them.

But no matter what disadvantages you place on a society, there are some who will force their way out on their own, like Christopher.

PIPER said...


You make an excellent point and it's one I made a little in my post. When you adopt the docu shooting style, you better be on your game because reality really needs to come into play.


I agree. But my problem was that there seemed to be only a couple of really smart aliens. The rest were scroungers.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

I bet you'd scrounge, too, were you left in that position.

PIPER said...

Nah, I would have been one of the two smart aliens. I would have known that I had a hankering for cat food and I would have taken one of those guns, headed to the nearest Pet Shop, obliterated everyone and then horded the cat food. I'm a survivor.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Yeah, but if you were a really smart alien, you'd know that you're one of the few movie aliens who can be harmed by little things like shotguns.

Also, how would you know what a pet store is, being cooped up in a slum?

Riddle me that, smart guy.

PIPER said...

I would arm myself with that big piece of metal that the smart alien had at the end of the movie which seemed to stop every bullet within a block of him. Then I would look up Cat Food in the Yellow Pages and find the nearest pet store. I would know how to do that because I'm a smart alien.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...


kenneth said...

Well, if you want to really freak yourself out, go back and pay close attention. You may find that you, too, can understand the Prawn Language.

I swear, when Chris was saying that he couldn't let his people be "Medical Experiments" ... I understood him saying medical experiments! This happened for about 10% of the film for me, after that point (once I was paying attention).

Now, I do have a background in linguistics, so maybe that helped.

I'll be interested in buying this DVD to see if it's really just English, run through some sort of filter. That would mean it is just English, but with the bad clicky accent. That would explain why MNU folks could understand it.

Anonymous said...

If you really pay close attention, it's just noises in replacement of English. If you watch the movie several times over, like I have (note: I have NO life), you can start understanding what they're saying a bit. You also start learning a few of the "clicks", like, "yes" is always pronounced: szahbve (JOB-vee) and "you" is always: szotoh (jo-TOH). If I can learn a few of the words in such a small amount of time, and the language is structured the same way English is, anyone can EASILY learn the language within the twenty years that they've been around.

Also, PIPER; at what point are the Prawns given another name besides, "Prawns" for us to use?

Alan said...

I liked the movie. As a South African I understood some of the subtleties that may have been missed by those foreign to the region.

South Africa has 11 languages, people often converse in their mother tongue and can understand another's language without having to speak it. I grew up watching Afrikaans television, understood the language, but could not speak Afrikaans - so the language issue between prawns and humans is a non issue.

As for Wikus, I knew guys like this, the everyman, not-so-smart-wannabe good guy. He thinks he is diligent in his job and takes himself seriously.

Yes, there is a reference to apartheid, evictions like this did happen - district 6 in Cape town is an example. However there is also a strong reference to the huge influx of 'illegal aliens' to South Africa coming in from north of the border. When the people in the street talk about the prawns, you could replace that with Zimbabweans, Nigerians etc. And yes, your cell phone or shoes can and do get stolen by these 'aliens'. That was some subtle tongue in cheek humor on the directors part.

This is more than a science fiction movie, it is a commentary on us as humans, and how we treat each other, how we see foreigners in our country, that we may have some redeeming qualities, but generally we are a sick bunch :)

As to the infection by the fuel, easy answer, the aliens use genetic technology for the guns and their fuel - The alien genetics in the fuel infected Wikus.

I read on the web about the directors comments, that the aliens had a caste culture, this was a ship filled with illiterate workers, and only a few smart supervisors, with regard to the cat food, one of the writers used to catch prawns with cat food, hence that reference. MNU = United Nations - not some small company, but Multi National Unit - another tongue in cheek bit of humor!

The premise in reality is not all that believable, I am sure we would treat aliens a lot better. this is a movie, it is far fetched, it is a story. In real life, we usually treat our 'human aliens' with contempt and disrespect.

A thought provoking movie, one which I enjoyed immensely.