Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

Spoiler free!

D9's wasteland of poverty and abjection, depressingly real despite tons of crazy CGI aliens running around everywhere.

2009 has been a decent year for sci-fi, from the mega-budget reinventing of “Star Trek” to the high art and creative ingenuity of the $5 million-budget “Moon” (currently in limited release, but put it on your Queue today). Now South African native Neill Blomkamp’s much anticipated “District 9” hits theaters today and brings with it the high hopes of sci-fi fans after early positive word from San Diego Comic Con. Produced under the guidance of venerable fantasy master, Peter Jackson, most of this provocative film is indeed deserving of the hype, but a few plot issues and conceptual snafus bring “D9” down a notch from brilliant to pretty damn good.

More than 20 years ago they came and for three months nothing happened. A massive alien vessel just hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa. But when the inhabitants of this stalled vessel eventually set foot on Earth, they came not as harbingers of doom or ambassadors of intergalactic peace and technology but as refugees. They were stuck here and not by choice. Lanky, green, glowing, wide-eyed telepathic beings they aren’t, these aliens look more like a cross between a roach and a lobster and bear the racial epitaph of “prawns.”

After decades of alien oppression and segregation in a massive slum outside Joburg called District 9, human/alien relations are at their lowest point ever. The government outsources alien relocation to a weapons tech company call MNU. The eviction operation, led by newly promoted Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), goes awry when a mysterious alien object is discovered. Soon Van De Merwe goes from corporate tool to the object of a deadly manhunt and is forced to join up with the only being that can help him — an alien named, or more accurately re-named, Christopher Johnson.

And yes, Christopher has a totally cute son designed (very well, indeed) to tug at the old heartstrings. In one scene Christopher shows a pamphlet to his young son describing the new (and even more terrible) refugee camp they will be moving to (my heart is sinking just thinking about what it means outside this movie). He points to the tiny little tents with his buggy tentacle saying something like, "this is our new home, son" while the little boy protests quietly. And in a few seconds the scene is over. D9 manages to hit us with these heavy scenarios multiple times, but rarely becomes maudlin due to all the explosions and MNU soldiers being blasted to goo.

Quick, name at least 5 sci-fi movies that feature similar shots!

Skillfully mirroring South African apartheid and mostly shot news style with a handheld digital look, “D9”’s depiction of intergalactic refugees is deeply layered and politically charged with great complex characters (human and alien) that bring us through some surprisingly irksome plot issues. The first half of the film is an onslaught of news footage and heartbreaking imagery recalling both America’s and South Africa’s sordid past of human rights violations as well as the present day refugee crisis in so many places around the world. It’s an extremely affecting set up, but as the film settles in little questions come up, as well as a few odd breaks from the new footage style. If the alien vessel is out of gas, how has it managed to hover gracefully over Joburg for so many years? What’s with the aliens’ desperate desire for canned cat food? Sadly, these aren’t the biggest questions that come up and go unanswered.

But “D9” succeeds in so many other places — the heartbreaking depiction of concentration camp-like conditions, the inhumane corporate machine and the remaining effects of racism, a reformed racist society easily falling back into old habits. As Van De Merwe and Christopher pair up, one to save himself and the other to save his race, it is clearly a case of when CGI goes right. The faceless and emotionless clunkers in “Transformers II” have nothing on the “prawns” in terms of achieving real character formation. And Blomkamp manages to do it with about $170 million less than Mr. Bay.

While “D9” makes real commentary on the state of race relations, pitting human residents against the ultimate illegal aliens, the film unfortunately keeps black South Africans in unflattering roles that further reinforce stereotypes. From quick shots of evening news-style testimonials to Van De Merwe’s frightened assistant and his thug of a body guard one is left wondering why these stale choices where made. When the Nigerian gang becomes a major player in the story things get utterly problematic and uncomfortable, which is perhaps the filmmaker’s intent.

Ever notice how good sci-fi often features really depressing government propaganda?

A big movie for a modest budget, “District 9” creates a rich and disturbing world full of deep-rooted and politically-charged human/alien rights issues while delivering a little gore and a lot of evisceration. Strained sci-fi and a dramatic switch from smart comments on societal injustices to a shoot ‘em up action picture nearly undoes the stark realism the filmmaker manages to achieve (despite the fact that all of the sympathetic characters in the movie are CGI.) An ambitiously odd mix of “Alien Nation” and “Blood Diamond” with multiple nods to classic sci-fi and a similar aesthetic to “Cloverfield,” “District 9” somehow still manages to be a truly original film. With such an impressive first film, let’s hope Blomkamp continues to push the conventions of the genre with his future pictures.


District 9
opens tonight!
Dir.: Neill Blomkamp
Writ.: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley and others
Rated: R for depressing things children shouldn't see and the gruesome affects of alien weaponry.