A movie about vile, disgusting, inhuman creatures. Plus aliens. ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A movie about vile, disgusting, inhuman creatures. Plus aliens.

District 9
My rating:

It can't have escaped any moviegoer's attention that Hollywood is getting depressingly unimaginative these days. Their recycling engines have been churning out remake after remake for some time now, but even remakes seem sensible compared to movies based on the board game Monopoly, the videogame Asteroids, or the View-Master toy (and yes, all three have been optioned as films, and I really wish I was making that up). So here comes a real breath of fresh air - an independently-financed sci-fi action blockbuster, set in South Africa, starring unknowns, directed by a first-timer, featuring a truly original story...

...unless you remember Alien Nation. Fortunately, District 9 is no Alien Nation.

Twenty-eight years ago, a massive alien spaceship appeared in the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, carrying over a million sickly aliens. Today, the camp in which they were housed has become a slum, and the aliens - derogatively referred to as "prawns" - are feared, discriminated against, and victimized. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) works for MNU, the corporation contracted to manage the aliens; when he becomes exposed to an alien fluid and starts to mutate horribly, he gains the ability to operate the hitherto-unusable high-tech alien weapons. Both his employers, and a faction of Nigerian gangsters, are after him, and his only ally is an alien with the unlikely name of Christopher Johnson - who has his own agenda to help his people.

I gotta say, I went into this movie with pretty high expectations. It's been getting glowing reviews from all over, and for the most part it deserves them. What it does best is tell a smart and sharply allegorical sci-fi story that still manages to be a kinetic and spectacular action-thriller. Yes, you may be reminded of Alien Nation, but once you watch the film you'll quickly forget all about it; that 1988 film (and subsequent TV series) employed aliens as a metaphor for racism within the limited context of modern American society. By making its aliens truly alien, instead of just actors with funny heads, District 9 explores the metaphor much further, and challenges us even more to recognize them as sentient beings instead of monsters.

And good gravy, there are folks in this film who fail that challenge spectacularly. Two particularly despicable individuals are Wikus' boss and father-in-law (Louis Minnaar), who lies bare-faced to his daughter while ordering her husband's dissection, and Koobus (David James) the sadistic private soldier who gleefully admits he loves killing "prawns". And then there are the Nigerian gangsters who routinely prey on the aliens, murdering them and devouring their body parts. Kudos to the movie's ballsiness, for making the aliens sympathetic and humans the villains. These are some truly hateful people, and I couldn't wait to see them die painful and bloody deaths.

What keeps this movie from being truly great is the fact that our hero, Wikus, is one of them. He starts out as a simpering bureaucrat who cheerfully murders a nest of alien eggs; you'd expect him to grow a conscience, not to mention some testicles, after all that he goes through, but it sure takes him a while. First-time actor Sharlto Copley's performance is all quivering, panicked desperation, and although it's effective, it doesn't make for someone you can root for. I suppose I have to admire the film for not giving us the expected repentant-hero-sees-the-light character arc, but I prefer my heroes to be heroes, thanks. He does get to redeem himself in the last act, fortunately for both him and the movie - if he hadn't, I'd have knocked another half-star off my rating.

The film employs a faux-documentary style, interspersed with interview segments to provide backstory and exposition. The handheld camera is not as headache-inducing as, say, Cloverfield, fortunately (though I'd still recommend not sitting too close to the screen) - what it does is create a terrific verisimillitude to the proceedings. Everything looks and feels real; the CGI effects are so well integrated that you never disbelieve what you're looking at, and you're never pulled out of the world that the film sucks you into. It's possibly the most immersive film of the year, despite - or rather, because of - its bug-eyed aliens and laser guns and giant robot mech that shows up during the climax.

I really wish I could've given this film three-and-a-half stars; there's so much that's fresh, daring and intelligent about it, and it's a real bright spot in the midst of a frankly lackluster summer movie season. But the lack of any real emotional engagement (beyond cold, indignant rage at the atrocities the aliens suffer) makes it an experience I couldn't unreservedly enjoy. I can, however, unreservedly recommend it. Where G.I. Joe, Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation are the cinematic equivalent of junk food, this here is a full-course meal. It nourishes the parts that those other movies cannot reach. Watch it, and see what real filmmaking looks like.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

NEXT REVIEW: Talentime
Anticipation level: my first Yasmin Ahmad movie! Yes!


chicnchomel said...

One of the more original movie to date for the year, no?

deck said...

I swear I held off from reading your review until I watched it for myself and wrote my own, but I too included an Alien Nation reference in my post. It was the only tv series I wrote a letter in support of when it was cancelled and I was in high school at the time.

I disagree with your opinion that the heroic character in District 9 should be more heroic. Why does it have to be a heroic adventure at all? Otherwise, well written review.

TMBF said...

I seem to be the only person who wishes Wikus was more of a hero. :P

Jaz said...

Disagree with your review. District 9 was always meant to be realistic and the fact that Wikus isn't your conventional hero enforces that realism. Strong prejudice such as that Wikus held towards the aliens in the beginning of the film can't realistically evaporate over the course of, what, 72 hours? Not after living with said prejudice for 20 years. After his actions at the beginning of the movie - that 'popcorn' scene, his lack of respect for the aliens, etc - if he had 'grown balls' much sooner I'd actually have to take a few stars off!

Besides, if he hadn't been 'one of them', it'd be so much less interesting! The film takes a different route with the humans being portrayed as villains - it also does so with its main character! I'd have given D9 four and a half :)

Your biggest fan in KiasuLand said...

A flawed hero is so much more heroic.