District 9

districtnineposterstarring Sharto Copley
written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell & directed by Neill Blomkamp
Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.

20 years ago, an enormous alien ship arrived and parked itself directly over Johannesburg, South Africa. Instead of first contact with highly-advanced beings, humanity finds the ship full of filthy, malnourished alien refugees. With international pressure mounting, the government relocates the “prawn” to a temporary camp, which soon becomes a permanent slum: District 9. Now, with human/alien relations strained to the breaking point, a chance encounter between Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley), a well-meaning but incompetent bureaucrat, and a prawn named Christopher Johnson will have volatile and unexpected consequences for everyone.

District 9 immediately drops the viewer into a fully-developed world that is at once exotic and familiar, fleshed-out with an intense attention to detail. The film begins as a documentary, using news reports and interviews to handle the details of exposition. The beauty of the technique is that it allows the setting to be developed to a point where explanations aren’t clumsy or forced, and unanswered questions don’t feel like plot holes. As the movie progresses, the film’s mode of narration gradually and gracefully slips into cinematic omniscience. Almost imperceptibly, the camera becomes a fly on the wall rather than part of the action, and the viewer is drawn completely into the story.

The illusion is maintained in part thanks to a cast of complete unknowns, most notable Copley as Wikus, the movie’s “everyman” hero. Actually, calling him an everyman might even be an overstatement. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less-likely action hero. Wikus begins the film as a sort of South African Michael Scott (the clueless manager of TV’s “The Office”), and wanders dangerously close to self-parody during the opening scenes. Ultimately, though, he becomes a believable character precisely because he is so flawed, and so conflicted between his desire to do the right thing on the one hand, and his constant self-interest on the other. He becomes the film’s moral center, but not until he has also displayed the darker side of humanity.

Even viewers unfamiliar with the recent history of South Africa will immediately recognize the subtext here, as the prawn are abused and exploited in every way imaginable. Terms like “dehumanizing” and “human rights” don’t even seem to occur to anyone. After all, these aren’t humans. Only Wikus eventually comes to realize how wrong they have been, and how wrong he, personally, has been; an inner transformation that mirrors the external one, Wikus’ identification with “the Other” is made possible by his transformation into the Other. Wikus is not maliciously evil, as some of the other characters are. He is exemplary of a more ordinary, complacent, and banal evil. Unwilling to rock the boat, he pretends everything is fine and pursues success within a system he knows is unjust. When he finally admits as much to Christopher Johnson late in the film, we sense that it may be the most dramatic change he has experienced.

While it may not be immediately obvious, District 9 is an action movie at heart. Without Wikus’s growth as a character, and as a person, it might be easy for all of its big ideas to get lost in the sturm and drang of the climax. The final half-hour or so is fantastically entertaining, even if it does seem to shift the focus away from the film’s disturbing message about humanity. By then the point has been made, and rather than browbeat the audience with it further, Blomkamp allows room for some straightforward, adrenaline-charged fun. It helps that, unlike much of this summer’s blockbuster fare, the extended, explosion-laced firefight has been earned by the depth of the plot.

Incidentally, I should probably mention that this is not a film for the faint of heart or (more importantly) the weak of stomach. And alongside that warning, I will also add the minor complaint that the movie tries to fake its audience out a few too many times with slow motion and mournful music; a small but grating misstep in a film that otherwise manages to avoid cinematic formulas and tropes to a refreshing degree. And speaking of “refreshing,” the story of District 9‘s production is a model of what I wish we’d see more of from Hollywood. Director Neill Blomkamp was set to direct a movie based on the Halo video game franchise for producer Peter Jackson, but when funding fell through, they put this together instead on a shoestring budget (the lack of financing doesn’t show). “What’s that,” you say, “a completely original science fiction story produced in place of yet another tired video game adaptation?” Yes, indeed. More, please!

~ by Jared on August 14, 2009.

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