Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Theaters: District 9

District 9 poster and IMPAwards link
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) looks doomed from the start. In DISTRICT 9 he is a functionary, a corporate bureaucrat sent to manage affairs with a population of insectoid aliens living in slums in Johannesburg, South Africa. He looks like Peter Sellers and acts awkward, silly, and weak; the trailer implies something horrible happening to him, so presumably he’ll die and someone more grizzled and brooding will come in to handle the action bits that the movie is supposed to have.

After a half hour or so, though, I realized a surprising thing. He was, in fact, the protagonist. And that’s just one of a number of daring things done by DISTRICT 9, a science fiction picture made outside the conventional blockbuster process that delivers many of the expected thrills nonetheless. Its success at doing so on a low budget, with an original story and no stars to speak of, is inspiring; the final product is not without its flaws, but it works well enough to give one hope that the digital revolution is finally giving filmmakers the freedom it promised over a decade and a half ago.

The aliens living in the slums of District 9 are unnamed refugees from an unnamed world, derogatorily referred to as “prawns” by a human race which instantly distrusts them. Forced to live apart from mankind, they scavenge and steal and are exploited both by criminals and the unimaginatively named Multi National Unlimited or MNU. Wikus, an MNU employee and married to the daughter of one of the higher ups, is given the job of informing the aliens that they’re about to be moved to an even less hospitable environment, and while he’s knocking on doors and helping mercenaries hunt down criminals, he accidentally gets sprayed by residue from a mysterious alien object. He feigns wellness for much of the rest of the day, until he becomes violently ill, and in the company’s private hospital, doctors discover that he is somehow taking on the form of one of the creatures. The upshot of this is that he is now able to use some of the futuristic weaponry confiscated from the aliens, weaponry keyed to their DNA and thus unusable by normal humans. When a surprisingly blasé surgical team sets about trying to harvest his mutated organs for science, Wikus breaks out and heads for the one place he can hide, which, of course, is District 9.

The slow way in which this transforms from drama, to thriller, to action picture is reminiscent of THE MATRIX; the film doesn’t feel forced to establish its exact genre in the first five minutes so that nobody gets confused. It allows itself the luxury of a slow buildup, because what we’re watching is fascinating on its own. The film actually has the framing device of a documentary on District 9 and the aliens’ imminent move, and what happened to Wikus, but that pretext quickly melts away- we get angles and camera feeds and cutaways that a legit doc would not have access to, and though the transition is odd, it’s sort of smooth. Unfortunately, throughout, the film retains a shaky, handheld aesthetic, and once again the filmmaker has a reason for it but don’t they always. The shakiness isn’t overdone by any means, but it is distracting, particularly in shots that would make perfect sense as more sedate angles.

When someone says a movie is reminiscent of a video game, they usually don’t mean it as a compliment. But the alien weaponry Wikus ends up using in his fight against the system clearly takes a page from science fiction first person shooters; you have guns that shoot lightning, guns that shoot blasts of explosive force with no apparent projectile, guns that manipulate magnetism and/or gravity, and at one point, a full-on suit of powered armor. Of course, director Neill Blonkamp was once on tap to direct the film version of HALO, with Peter Jackson producing as he does here; the studios balked at handing a large budget to an untested director, the project died, and Blonkamp made this to show what we missed out on.

Blonkamp has gone on record as saying he didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience, and the film doesn’t go to great lengths to explain things that aren’t immediately vital to the story. We never quite work out how intelligent the aliens are; we meet one, named Patrick Johnson (seriously), who is something of a mechanical genius, but he seems to be the exception. Some characters theorize that they’re drones without a leader, but nothing confirms that, and it’s possible that they’re acting wild and savage because they are being treated like savages. Arguably, the obtuseness goes a little too far; so many questions are left unanswered by the end that it seems to be specifically made with a sequel in mind (another trait this has in common with recent video games, oddly enough.)

One of the really daring things the film does is dare to make its protagonist less-than-morally-pure. “Prawn” breeding is strictly controlled, and he casually, almost brightly aids in the destruction of illegal egg nests, and is more concerned with what’s happening to him than what’s happening to the aliens. Through the film this changes, but slowly, and you get the sense that he has a long way to go.

DISTRICT 9 does, in the end, occasionally fall prey to action film logic, and some more time to develop the other characters- Wikus’ wife, the MNU baddies, the sadist they’ve got heading up the mercenaries- would have been appreciated. It feels like the filmmakers really wanted to peel down the picture to its absolute essentials, and though that no doubt helped it get made on a low budget, one is left wishing more concepts were developed. Still, what’s there works extremely well; DISTRICT 9 is a lean action picture which, in between social commentary and black humor, delivers a bit of excitement and even wonder. It leaves you hoping that more filmmakers are able to create ambitious and dazzling productions without having to go through the blockbuster machine. And if not, well, it was nice to get this one at least.

Written by Neill Blonkamp and Terri Tatchell
Directed by Neill Blonkamp

Grade: B+

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