Thursday, August 13, 2009

District 9 **1/2

District 9
**1/2 out of ****

District 9 has the distinction of being one of the most unique alien invasion movies in history. It's produced by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and jump-starts the career of newbie director Neill Blomkamp, who was supposed to make the Halo movie. The film (not to be confused with 9, the animated postapocalyptic film about rag dolls coming to life, out next month; and definitely not with Nine, the musical with Daniel Day-Lewis, out in December) opens as a sort of very complex, very serious episode of The Office, as a fake documentary chronicling an alien ship coming to Earth and hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. It combines interviews, amateur-style video from helicopters and on the ground, and even news footage (all fake, of course) to lay out the story of how humans made an inglorious First Contact with the aliens in the ship and were then forced to house and take care of them. The aliens, which humans call Prawns, did not come to destory humanity, but they're not friendly either. They riot, steal, and kill people, causing huge rallies to get them to leave. They are also strangely obsessed with cat food, one of the more inspired parts of the story. They are confined to a ghetto called District 9, which eventually turns into a slum, full of pollution and crime. The public says they're too close to the humans, so a corporation called MNU sets up District 10 and decides to evict all the aliens.
Enter our main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, who looks sort of like a geeky Ethan Hawke. He is promoted in MNU and is in charge of evicting all the aliens. Lucky for him, he speaks their gargled, clicky language fluently. While pillaging the home of one alien, Wikus finds a cylinder with alien fluid inside and accidentally sprays himself with it. This makes him very sick and slowly turns him into a Prawn, making him very valuable to his company and the government. MNU has been studying the Prawns' weapons, which are much more advanced but only work for the Prawns themselves. After they try to kill him, he goes on the run and becomes a fugitive. He hides out in District 9 and befriends the alien that owned the cylinder. Together they hatch a plan to get it back and fix Wikus.
While the film does make good use of the fake-documentary style, it does not last. It switches back and forth between being a mockumentary and being just a sci-fi movie with handheld, shaky camerawork. The format is comparable to Cloverfield. While it all serves to make the story seem more real, you find yourself thinking to the cameraman, Can't you be still for one second? It can make one dizzy watching the film.
The film's big success lies in its visual effects, which are absolutely astounding and look incredibly real. This is specifically referring to the Prawns themselves, which interact with humans to great extent. The omnipresent mothership hovering over the city also looks very real, almost like a plane getting caught in the background of the shot. And the film is very lucky that the special effects are so good, because so many other elements fall short. There are several flaws in the writing. While the original concept of the story is ingenius, several plot points are cheesy and the film ultimately leaves the viewer with many questions. It's also pretty predictable once the conflict is established. The dialogue in particular is very poor in some scenes. The bad guys' lines when they're considering killing Wikus, which convey the film's humanitarian message, are about as subtle as a jackhammer.
The film is also incredibly gory, surprising given the documentary-style footage which dots much of the finished product. It's easy to see why Blomkamp was considered to make Halo; much of the film feels like a very detailed, very violent third-person video game. This will disgust many viewers, especially queasy audience members. (Fans of Jackson's early work know that he loves this kind of stuff.) The film also moves surprisingly slowly, even during its frenetic action scenes, which makes the film seem much longer than it actually is.
For all its faults, District 9 is a good summer film, entertaining and dazzling, and much more original than anything that's come out so far this year. One would only hope for a better story from a film so brilliantly conceived.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes gory sci-fi and action films, and anyone looking for something unusual.

You can watch the trailer here:
You can also watch Alive in Joburg, the short film that was expanded into this feature-length production, here:

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