District 9

September 6, 2009

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Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a rare treat.  Its high concept is established with an opening presented as a mockumentary, providing exposition in a witty, politically pointed manner.  The first thirty or so minutes of the film are extraordinarily good, no doubt as it was an extension of the short feature from which this current version was borne.  What’s so rare about it as how it eventually (and yes, to a degree, sloppily) abandons this approach and becomes a fairly standard fugitive/sci-fi/actioner, and I wasn’t left disappointed in missed opportunities.  When I say “standard”, I should add that this is actually executed with an above-average level of skill, even if it never truly rises beyond the tropes of the genre.

The story goes that in the early 1980’s, an alien spacecraft entered the earth’s atmosphere and settled over the city of Johannesburg.  It appeared to stop working, aside from the hovering, and when it was opened there were hundreds of thousands of sick, undernourished aliens (called ‘prawns’) cowering inside.  There was an attempt at some level of integration, but this ended in rioting from the human citizens, and now they are confined to a slum called District 9.  Being as it is set in South Africa, the obvious metaphor is that of apartheid, but the film (at least the opening stages) goes beyond that, taking shots at profit-seeking corporations and private security forces being brought in by the government to take care of the problem, as well as cheery company-speak masking dirty deeds and the most horrendous forms of nepotism.  The poor schmuck who gets the promotion (from his father-in-law, no less) is Wikes Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is put in charge of the operation to go shack-to-shack to serve official notice of eviction to the prawns, in preparation for moving them to a campsite further away from the city.  The corporation put in charge of the operation, Multinational United, is also a defense contractor with a keen desire to work out how to use the alien weapons scattered throughout the slum.  The opening act is a mish-mash of news footage, talking head interviews, and footage from a documentary crew following Van Der Merwe as he prepares for and sets out on his mission.  The vibrant opening explains back-story and allows for some satiric interludes as well as establishing the alternate reality in which we’ve been tossed.  It’s fun and interesting, and if it lacks the subtle beauty of Children of Men’s immersion of the audience within its universe, it does succeed in creating probably the best science fiction world since.  Things go wrong for Van Der Merwe, and then the film awkwardly transitions from a strict mockumentary style to the more standard fictional presentation that will carry us through most of the rest of the story.  We’re introduced to the only prawns given any depth (or indeed, intelligence), and they Christopher Johnson and his son, who have been working on a plan ever since they landed some 20-odd years previous.

The story drives forward at a good pace, and when the more action-oriented latter stages occur, we’re ready for them, and they do not disappoint.  Still, there are problems.  I forgive the shift in style, and although a smoother process might have been welcomed, the current format works well to juxtapose outside perception from inside reality.  There are certain actions the characters do that exist solely (and aggravatingly) to serve the plot, and thus there are moments that feel a little too contrived.  However, this is nit-picking.  It isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an interesting one, and a very entertaining one on that.

Central to the venture is Sharlto Copley’s performance, which gives us perhaps the least likeable action hero in quite some time.  He starts off as a hapless and somewhat cliché bureaucrat, undeservedly promoted and with so little understanding of what he’s doing you almost feel sorry for him.  I was surprised to find that he didn’t die, leading the rest of the film to be carried by some newly introduced handsome (but sensitive!) soldier.  In fact, even when he seems to be coming around to help Christopher out, he turns in on himself and reverts back to a simpering, selfish idiot, and for that reason the film works a lot better than it might on paper.  He’s never fully likeable, but he’s always understandable.  Even if the mockumentary aspect is mostly abandoned, we’re still following a deeply flawed everyman.  He does extraordinary things, but he almost always acts in a way you’d expect of someone like him.  I can’t help but wonder that the only reason we can get a character like that is because a big name star does not play him.  One would imagine that if someone known in Hollywood were to front this film, the studios would require a much more steadfast and traditional hero.  Which brings us to another reason why this film is so successful:  it stays true to its roots.  There are subtitles here and there, mostly for the Nigerian gang members, but this film makes no attempt to hide the South African accent, something that might scare studio execs if it had a larger budget.  The relatively meager $30 million price tag gave Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson a lot of freedom, and it pays off.  There’s a sweetness to the ending that is actually quite moving (though it does bring to mind Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is unfortunate if not entirely its fault), but it’s hardly a straight up happy resolution.

The budget is worth noting for what might be the most impressive aspect of the venture, and that is the CGI special effects.  The prawns are beautifully realized, and the spaceship hovering over is ominous and stunning in a way that most blockbusters can’t even understand.  Blomkamp seems to have an impressive combination of unbelievable special effects skill and budgetary restriction understanding.  He uses the low-grade video quality in some of the opening stages to his advantage, and the verité camerawork gives a realistic weight to the prawns.  Instead of CGI monsters/robots crashing around in slow motion from 47 different angles, we get movements that are fluid and understandable.  When the filmmaker takes for granted that these beings and these ships are real, so does the audience.  De-emphasizing the effects makes them stronger.  It’s astonishing that Michael Bay spent around seven times the budget on Transformers 2 and the robots don’t look nearly as good as anything here.

Finally, I should add a note on the charges of racism.  Some have contended that the only major black character is a Nigerian gang boss, and thus we have a case of the Colonial White Man saving the oppressed.  First of all, Nigerian gangs are a notorious problem in South African slums, and Blomkamp has stated that leaving them out would seem too unrealistic when dealing with modern day Johannesburg.  Secondly, the privileged whites are depicted as far worse, either in their outright profit-hungry actions or in their misguided and yes, colonial, aspirations to ‘help’ the prawns.  Even the hero isn’t particularly heroic.  In any case, I think it all adds an extra layer of interest from the metaphorical perspective, and I certainly welcome any debate on the issue as a good thing.

So to conclude, it is flawed in places but overall very good indeed.  It’s been a lackluster summer for the action/sci-fi genre, and it only seems proper that one of the best entries is a small, foreign production.  Especially in our harsh economic times, surely it is better to spend a fraction of the amount generally understood to be necessary and just make a good movie.  So far, the profit margins for the studio on this picture have been very high, and I hope they catch on.  On the flipside, I would prefer there not to be a District 10, but I would never expect a studio to leave well enough alone.

-MH

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