Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

District 9 *** ½
Directed By: Neil Blomkamp.
Written By: Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell.
Starring: Sharlto Copley (Wikus Van De Merwe), William Allen Young (Dirk Michaels), Nick Blake Louis Minnaar (Piet Smit), Vanessa Haywood (Tania Van De Merwe), Mandla Gaduka (Fundiswa Mhlanga), David James (Koobus Venter), Kenneth Nkosi (Thomas).

District 9 is one of those few genre films that understands that if they want to be remembered after opening weekend that it has to be about more than just special effects, explosions and gunfights. Sure, District 9 has all of those things in abundance - I doubt you will see this year with more exploding heads, vaporizing bodies and gun battles than this one. They are done with high style and are rather brilliant in their way that they throw every thing and the kitchen sink (not to mention a flying pig) into the action sequences. But the reason that we except the fight sequences in the films final act is because the films first two acts brilliantly set everything up.

The film is a fake documentary about a visiting race of aliens, who for some reason get stranded on earth. Their spaceship dies above Johannesburg, South Africa and they are immediately brought down in put in a shanty town, which becomes a slum and a ghetto, infested with crime and poverty, where the aliens are treated not as second class citizens, but not as citizens at all. They have a wide array of weaponry that the humans try to figure out, but cannot. It appears that the weapons are linked biologically to the aliens themselves. Only they can use them at all.

The people in Johannesburg get tired of having these aliens around for two decades, and so the government decides to move them to an even worse settlement 200 miles away. In charge of the operation is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose job is to go from house to house in the shanty town and give out eviction notices to everyone. To make it all legal, they need the aliens to sign waivers agreeing to the movie, which they get through either intimidation or bribery.

If you do see not the parallels between the plot of this movie and the South African legacy of Apartheid, then that’s probably because you’ve never heard of Apartheid, and I suggest that you need to pick up a book once in a while. The slums where the aliens are kept have been so meticulously modeled after the slums in South Africa during Apartheid, the methods used by the government almost exactly the same. The aliens are looked down upon, spat upon and derogatorily referred to as prawns - which admittedly they do kind of look like. When the movie opens up the idea of doing experiments on the aliens themselves, testing their pain thresh holds, testing the effects on weapons on them, and the medical experiments they conduct on them, it is also impossible not to have flashes to the Nazi camps during WWII and the experiments of Joseph Mengele - after all the doctor in charge has the last name Mhlanga. The movie is not so much of an allegory, because the purpose really is not buried - it’s right up front from the beginning of the movie and never lets up.

But do not get the idea that District 9 is a movie that rams its message down your throat. If you wanted to ignore the political implications of the film, and simply sit back and take the film at face value, it also works wonderfully on that level as well. The film centers on two unconventional heroes. When we are first introduced to Wikus, you would be forgiven in thinking that this was nothing more than a minor supporting character - a gutless government bureaucrat who gets promoted due to family connections, not because he is very good at this job. No one respects him, and he is scared of the army soldiers he is supposed to be in charge of. This is not how you typically introduce your hero. But Sharlto Copley gives a remarkable performance as Wikus. He effortlessly blends into the movie ensemble cast, creating a sympathetic character out of what could be a one conventional role. When he gets sprayed with some alien juice, he slowly starts to change into a prawn himself, much to his horror. They want to use him for experiments, cut up his body and analyze the parts, to see if there is anything they can use for further advances. When he escapes, he has no one to turn to. He ends up hiding in District 9, when an unlikely and uneasy friendship forms between him and the other “hero” of the movie - a prawn with the strange name of Thomas Johnson. He has a young son, and he just wants to go home. The liquid that sprayed Wikus that started his transformation is the liquid he needs to get the huge ship moving again - and is Wikus’ only hope to be turned back to normal. Now that it is in a government lab, the two of them have to go in and get it - this the shooting begins.

Once the shooting begins, it never lets up. Thousands of rounds on ammunition are fired in the films final act. Countless people have their heads explode, or just plain ripped off of their bodies, their bodies vaporized by advanced weaponry. At one point Wikus gets into a high powered alien suit, which allows him to take on all comers at one time. Nearly everyone dies in one creative way or another. Director Neil Blomkamp stages the action brilliantly - way better than recent movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or G.I. Joe or pretty much everything else out this summer. Yes, I do kind of wish that a movie that started out as intelligent as District 9 had found a more intelligent way to end its story, I really cannot complain too hard, since it is so damn entertaining. Besides, the final shot of the film is quietly brilliant, and tragic in its own way.

One of the things that makes the film so original, and enjoyable, could also be its biggest flaw however and that is the format of the fake documentary being made. When the film opens, with talking heads, and footage shot by newscasters followed Wikus on his rounds, everything works brilliantly well. But the film never does explain how they got such in depth, behind the scenes footage of the aliens, or of Wikus plight. The characters never seem to acknowledge that the camera is there. Considering how many times brains splatter on the camera, we never see anyone clean it off either. In order to get the footage, they must have had a team following every movement at all times.

But once you figure this out, you have two choices - you can either let it ruin the movie for you, or you can simply role with the punches. I obviously, choose the second option. The movie is so uncommonly intelligent for movies of this sort, so much more interested in its character, its storyline and its action, that you hardly seem to notice unless you care to. If you accept this one flaw in the movie, than it is very possible that your opinion will match mine - that District 9 is one of the most entertaining, well crafted films of the summer.

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