Tuesday, September 01, 2009

493 - District 9 review

The spaceship hovers ominously above Johannesburg, a frightening monument to the otherworldly and the unknown. Its inhabitants are creatures we call the prawn, hideous bipedal aliens with a mysterious background. Even after two decades on our planet, we’re not entirely sure where they come from or what their purpose is, but we know that they’re filthy, repulsive, and violent. They’re forced off the South African streets and into District 9, a remarkably unpleasant ghetto that seemingly suits the prawn just fine, though is in many ways indistinguishable from those many humans occupy.

Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” is a triumph of science fiction and action, of lofty themes and challenging character drama. Even as it offers visceral thrills through firefights and special effects, it presents us with ideas that are equal parts provocative and discomforting. What a rich film this is, one that infuses mainstream excitement with generously intelligent ideas.

It’s hero is Wikus van de Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley in a performance widely described as breakout, and with good reason. Wikus is a bureaucrat at MNU, the military corporation responsible for handling the prawn problem. A shifty, incapable man whose success is owed entirely to the fact that his father-in-law runs the company, he is assigned to oversee the relocation of the prawns from District 9 to District 10, an even worse containment area that’s further from the human population.

The film begins in mockumentary style with a camera recording the first day of District 9’s liquidation, which entails Wikus and a company of trigger-happy mercenaries serving eviction notices. Nearly all of the prawn are dim-witted and aggressive, leading Wikus to count smudges on his clipboard as signatures. He then encounters a prawn dubbed Christopher Johnson, a prawn scientist with a young son who civilly objects to his treatment. Wikus goes snooping around Christopher’s workspace and gets tainted by an alien fuel cell, leading to a dramatic (and quite ugly) shift in his appearance.

The film rests on Copley’s shoulders, and that he is so wildly successful at the task is made all the more astounding considering his near complete lack of screen acting. Rarely does a film of any sort feature a protagonist who is so markedly unsympathetic; we’re introduced to Wikus as he cheerfully boots the prawn out of their meager homes and roots through their property. Later, hunted by his own company and the Nigerian thugs who terrorize District 9, he seeks Christopher’s aid in reversing the effects of his infection, still making it abundantly clear that his sole concern is to return to his wife. It’s a tightrope game of sympathy played by Copley and the filmmakers which sees our distaste for his callousness towards others compete with our understanding for his desire to return to his wife, who he truly does consider with the greatest affection.

“District 9” is Blomkamp’s first feature, with “Lord of the Rings” auteur Peter Jackson producing. Blomkamp was originally slated to helm a cinematic adaptation of “Halo,” but when the plug was pulled, “District 9” took its place. Made for less than a sixth of the budget of this summer’s “Transformers” movie, “District 9” looks phenomenal in every regard, the prawn meshing seamlessly with their human oppressors, the action scenes gory and keenly shot.

Much has been made about the film’s function as an allegory. To what point are the prawn representative of apartheid’s victims? Are they representative of many nations’ treatment of immigrants, or is their mistreatment intended to represent the grievous injuries humans inflict on one another? It’s great when audience members are compelled to discussing the meaning of a film instead of simply how it looked. Can you imagine anyone having a long talk about “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” even amongst a group of fans?

As to whether or not “District 9” should already be declared a classic, I’ll reserve judgment. Seemingly crucial information about the prawns is never supplied, and a few moments at the end veer into screenplay rubric. But I like what “District 9”’s box office success signals: that a studio can release an exhilarating, inventive, intellectually provocative film and be rewarded for it. Here’s hoping for much more.

4 out of 5


Ryan said...

Saw it and liked it, though there was admittedly more gore than I first expected.

The shaky-cam was used a bit much in the opening minutes and I had to move back a few rows in the theatre to shake off motion sickness.

I thought it was a bit much that they never talk about why the prawn came to earth. War, disease, famine? I suppose in a way that would have made them more obviously representative of a single problem, but it was something that I kept coming back to even as I watched the movie.

Blake Badker said...

dude this is a genocidal apology. it is a nazi propaganda movie but this time we are the nazis.

"i will kill to survive, i've got nothing to hide."

i don't know what to say. it just really sucks to know we pay taxes for what's going on in the world right now. we just got to find a way to move on and be glad we survived and do everything to regain our humanity and renounce militarism when peace returns - and peace will return because armies operate on money.

i guess we can rest easy knowing that our enemies would gladly do the same to us. but we must mitigate such thoughts. within freedom of speech we must find a way back to peace that begrudges our military victories rather than over-celebrating them.