Wednesday, September 2, 2009

District 9 (2009)

District 9 takes off like a bullet, blasting its opening scenes at the audience with a terrifying speed, quickly overwhelming (but not frustrating) with new information. It opens as a documentary, showing us how, twenty years ago, a massive spaceship stopped over Johannesburg and wouldn’t move. Eventually, a hole was cut in the side, allowing the world to discover, and remove, sickly menial workers of an alien race – quickly nicknamed Prawns – the leaders already dead from disease. The aliens are shuffled off into a ghetto called District 9 where they can coexist without mingling with the humans. The immigration and racism allegories that can, and have, been used for aliens in the past, are joined here by an apartheid allegory, made all the more vivid by its South African setting (a place that really had a District 6), is interesting and nuanced. It makes feelings of revulsion towards the “other” understandable with the ugly design of the aliens (I was revolted by them at some points). What a thrilling opening to the film, a science fiction film with real brains and a fully realized world.

Our main character is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, first-time actor), a bureaucrat assigned to evict the Prawns from District 9 and order them moved to District 10. He bumbles along, cheerfully carrying out said job, jesting with the men working with him and playing things up for the documentary cameras. But, as often happens in these kinds of movies, something goes wrong. Wikus makes a critical mistake and consequentially finds himself falling into a bottomless pit of problems. There are scenes of great bodily horror and gross-out gags. The editing grows more frantic, the cinematography nightmarish. The good mockumentary turns into an equally good horror-mockumentary hybrid. But then, a mistake is made.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp drops the mockumentary aspect altogether and turns the movie into a straight-up sci-fi actioner. The movie works fairly well as an actioner, and the massive set-piece of discharging weaponry that closes the film is impressive, but it’s jarring to have a fairly typical documentary style film throw in a scene that no documentary filmmaker could have captured and then drop the conceit entirely. But if that were the only problem with the last act of the film, this would still be a very good movie. The problem is it’s not the only problem. Wikus takes a series of actions, late in the film, that make little sense given what we’ve seen up to that point. (I’m sure many of you have seen it by now, but I’ll dance around the spoilers anyways). He very quickly turns on a character because he disagrees with the time a plan would take, despite the fact that this other character is the only person who could help him. Just a handful of scenes later, Wikus is helping the other character again. These changes are nothing more than a plot gimmick, a false and forced beat of drama that provides yet another hiccup in the transition from doc to schlock. Both halves are good, but the first half is more successful at its goals than the second half.

But, these quibbles aside, the movie is still impressive, still entertaining, and still good. The special effects are fantastic, stunningly integrated into the live-action material. Sharlto Copley is equally fantastic, especially considering that it’s his screen debut. There are still brains behind the concept, even though it gets harder to see them as the film goes on. There’s great intense energy and propulsion to the film – it only slows down a little in the middle – that creates a visceral series of thrills. It’s a thrill-ride of a movie. It’s not perfect – I won’t be one of those people over-praising it – but in a summer starved for thrill rides, this will do just fine.

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