Tuesday, August 25, 2009
(A review with spoilers.)
I saw "District 9" on Saturday, August 15th, and was pleasantly surprised to find a smart, original science fiction film exploring actual ideas at my local multiplex. Particularly after a few weekends of truly mindless toy-based movies.
I feel a certain pressure, all in my own head I'm sure, to really sound off about how great this movie is in a post. I think part of that comes from having a film exceed my expectations, part comes from my being as susceptible as the next guy to geek enthusiasm, and part of it is I think this film may be remembered long after this summer. But I'm not totally convinced on that last one yet, so I think restraint should be the order of the day.
I'm actually writing this on Monday, August 17th, but posting it today (Aug 25th) because I wanted to be sure there were at least two weekends between its release and my post because a.) I'd deal in spoilers, and wanted as many people to have seen the movie before the post went up as possible, and b.) I think even a non-spoiler-y review would give too much of the movie away. This movie, perhaps more than some others, benefits from low plot-awareness going in. So if you haven't seen it yet, click onto another website from your Favorites drop-down, because spoilers are a'comin'.
Quick background on the movie: The film's director, Peter Jackson-protege Neill Blomkamp, was slated to do a big-budget multi-studio film based on the "Halo" video games. That fell through when the studios got skittish about dumping $200 million into a movie whose hero wears an opaque face-shield for two hours. When the project died, Jackson and Blomkamp regrouped and poured all of their "Halo" energy and momentum into a new film. "District 9" is that film.
Set in Johannesburg, South Africa in present day, the film is shot in a quasi-documentary style and purports to document an eviction action on a slum settlement in that city. The evictors are a shady corpo-military company called MNU whose team, comprised of some civilians but more Blackwater-like mercenaries, are led by Wikus Van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) an affable bureaucrat who's been thrust into the role of team leader on the big day. The evictees are 7-foot tall aliens, derogatorily called "prawns" by their human neighbors, who came to Earth 20 years ago and have been penned into a squalid shantytown called "District 9" since. Much of the fun of these early sequences comes from seeing the human actors interact with the digital aliens without being awed by them. Wary, yes, afraid, yes, but not in any way amazed. These aliens are a part of the landscape for these South Africans, and on this day, just a problem to be dealt with.
During the raid, Wikus is exposed to an alien compound that makes him sick. Pretty soon he realizes what's happened: he's becoming one of them. The film proceeds to follow hapless, terrified Wikus as he attempts to fix what's wrong with him and chronicles his transformation from human to alien. Where "District 9" and Cronenberg's "The Fly" differ primarily is in how focused the story is on the transformation. "The Fly" pays loving attention to Seth Brundle's disgusting metamorphosis, but Blomkamp seems content to get the gross-out willies out of the way sooner, and doesn't linger much on them. But as with "The Fly", "District 9" lives and dies on how well the character of Wikus is written, and how well that character is played. Lucky for Blomkamp, Copley turns in a brilliant performance.
First, the actor. Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van der Merwe, does excellent work. I loved that I'd never seen him before and the effect that lack of familiarity had on the way I experienced the movie. When he appeared on-screen in that first medium shot, I truly had no idea he was going to be the lead. I thought he would probably talk about the person we would come to know as the lead, but no way was this nebbish our guy. And I think it's awesome that it turned out he was. I wish more movies could pull this off, that studios would take a chance on more great first-time actors, but for now I'll just be grateful for the few times it does happen. I'm looking forward to seeing him in more films.
Second, and more importantly, the character. Wikus Van der Merwe is a classic Hollywood nice guy. Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter from "The Apartment" could have stood in for Wikus during these first scenes; he's chipper and charming, people at his work like him, he's even a bit incompetent, but incompetent in a nice way. But where other screenwriters might push away from the desk on issues of character with just that sketch, Blomkamp goes a bit further. Wikus is also a racist. The film does spend some time interviewing people who aren't racists (or maybe a terrestrialist is a better word), so tolerant people do exist in this world, but Wikus sure ain't one of them. He calls the aliens "prawns" as his default; his feelings of superiority are so built-in, he calls them prawns even when he needs their help. More than that, he doesn't care about their well-being. Sure, he doesn't like to see them slaughtered (like certain others at MNU), but watching them suffer a bit of abuse from some MNU shock troops doesn't bother him much. Nor does threatening to take away their kids if they don't submit to the eviction weigh much on his conscience. In Wikus's book, all of that's acceptable behavior.
But what happens to him over the course of the story changes him. Wikus has got an honest-to-God, old-time-screenwriting-101 character arc. I didn't realize how much I missed this stuff until I realized I'd been deprived of it for so long. Wikus changes. Physically, yes, but the physical change he endures forces him to see things in a new way. His outlook changes. And because Wikus resists that change so strenuously, it feels all the more authentic. Sometimes in movies, it feels like the character changes his stripes because the screenwriter's gotten to a certain page number in his script. But here it's well-done, gripping, and earned. I'd say that thematically, "District 9" shares as much in common with "Glory" as "The Fly" -- Colonel Shaw's journey from intolerance to respect for an unfairly maligned group follows a similar path, and both films reap some stirring moments as a result.
The effects were very good, but not breakthrough good. At least not visually. (They may have been so cheaply produced as to be landmark, but all I can go by is what's on-screen, and they looked as good as most CGI I've seen, and a bit better in a number of cases). But the aliens were well-done, particularly when the camera went into a close shot on their faces. Their eyes were alien enough so we wouldn't notice where the CG fell short, but human enough to let the CG render emotion, which they did surprisingly well. It's easy to see in the aliens of "District 9" how Blomkamp might have rendered the aliens of "Halo". I'd be happy to see Blomkamp get his turn at the plate for that project after all, though I'm not optimistic it will be him at the helm.
[Quick Geek Note: The 3rd act of this movie kicks the door open wide for a live-action, big-budget MechWarrior-type film. Much like all studios are scared witless about the idea of a superhero team-up movie, I think they've been similarly dismissive of a giant robot-suit movie, even though there's massive geek demand for it, both from anime fans and from nostalgiasts who remember stuff like "Voltron" fondly. These studio executives can only imagine these projects done wrong, and the careers that would end as a result. But with the climactic sequence that ends this film, Blomkamp has taken the stress out of green-lighting a mech warrior-type film. He balances the strength and gee-whiz dynamism of the robotic exoskeleton with Wikus's key emotional moments (which happen while inside the suit) so well, I think the studios will be turning something like "Johnny Appleseed" or any of the other countless giant-robot-suit Anime stories into a summer tentpole in the next 5 years. Prognostication over.]
Finally, I thought the social commentary of "District 9" was well-done and gave us a vision of an alternate-near-future that was as dystopian and disturbing as anything in "Blade Runner". I think the simple read of the social dynamics in "District 9" is that the film is a simple parable of how the whites in South Africa treated the blacks under the Apartheid regime, with the "prawns" standing in for the oppressed blacks, and humanity for the South African whites. Though it is that at it's core, "District 9" also levels its social critiques at other targets.
For instance, the true villain of the film is not a man but a corporation, MNU. MNU takes the worst aspects of massive, faceless, fingers-in-all-pots-type corporations like General Electric or Monsanto, and then gives them the quasi-military power of a BlackWater or a Halliburton. That the whole enterprise is run by the hero's father-in-law who just happens to have the moral code of Dr. Mengele, makes it clear what Blomkamp's opinion is of multinational corporations acting on the world stage. "District 9" also takes a fairly dim view of humanity, beyond the confines of racism. Rather than adhere to the high-minded theory that the presence of extra-terrestrials on Earth would cause a peace-explosion on this planet, Blomkamp presents, instead, a vision of that scenario where humankind's innate propensity towards violence and intolerance, particularly against those we believe to be different, wins out over those high-minded ideals. The result is we treat our alien visitors abominably. In the end, fear rules our behavior.
Anyway a good and impressive movie, and well worth a visit to the theater if you can swing it.