Saturday, August 15, 2009

Love: District 9

District 9 is not the movie you think it is. This isn't a horror film, it's not your standard alien invasion tale, there is no struggle for mankind, and it's just too effective to be a camp creature feature. Instead, traditional science fiction roles are reversed and South African director Neill Blomkamp delivers a strikingly human Apartheid/war crime allegory the emotional depth of which will totally blow your mind.
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An alien race, derogatorily referred to as "Prawns" arrives over Johannesburg and becomes stranded on Earth. The Prawns are malnourished and suffering, so humans step in to set up a refugee camp for them, which soon becomes the shanty town District 9. Twenty years later, the Prawns are still residing in their camp and a private corporation called Multi-National United oversees the creatures in an attempt to steal the alien's biotechnologically advanced weaponry. MNU is, of course, completely uninterested the welfare of the Prawns, and the aliens subsequently live in squalor as their friends and loved ones are taken hostage for top secret experimentation. The film is structured as a loose documentary that mixes interviews and news footage with the events of the actual story. This sort of journalistic narrative structure works. Blomkamp's attention to detail is phenomenal. After an extended stay amongst humans, the Prawns are essentially grasshopper slum bunnies. Their mannerisms and interactions with the MNU agents assigned to evict them from District 9 and transport them to the death camp District 10 are remarkably believable. They're morally reprehensible and ugly, but it's easy to envision the Prawns as a subspecies of human, particularly as our protagonist, vainglorious chicken-shit Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), heads up the MNU task force, serving up heaping helpings of injustice everywhere he goes.
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There are a lot of twists in District 9, and the brilliantly rendered opening scenes of life out of balance flow easily into an action packed, straight sci-fi second act. Wikus, you see, accidentally stumbles upon something he shouldn't have, and so begins a chain of events that has him turning his deep "racism" into understanding. For some, the film will fall into a gray area. It is, as previously stated, far too fully realized and smart to be a brainless good time, yet, it's too invested in rollicking action to necessarily capture the Oscar-bait victims who might be more inclined to fully appreciate it. The comical scenes are juxtaposed with familiar strains of human tragedy, and as the story continues its emotional intensity becomes more and more severe.

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As we are brought further and further into the going-ons of District 9, we find ourselves invested in the well-being of a Prawn named Christopher Johnson and his young son. Christopher is highly intelligent, much moreso than the humans who restrain him. He's worked diligently for two decades attempting to find a way to fly back up to the hovering mothership, fix the missing pieces, and return home while his peers barter for cat food and engage in interspecies prostitution. In Christopher's seamless integration, Blomkamp triumphs. The turning points are natural, the human qualities are flawlessly realized. It's rare to find a sci-fi film that delivers this sort of poignant blend of tragedy and drama while never losing its machine gun stride. If you don't become upset and militantly political in the course of watching this movie, you should really check to make sure you aren't a cyborg. Seriously. Make a neat incision somewhere and start looking for wires.
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District 9 is a low-budget triumph in a summer dominated by overbudget, ham-fisted achievements in mediocrity. As sci-fi films go, this is the real deal. It's a brilliant film that reveals much about our world. Don't judge based solely on appearances, still waters and alien exoskeletons run deep.


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