15 August 2009

Movie review: District 9

District 9 (2009)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs.

If there’s a better film to come out in the remaining four and a half months of 2009 . . . well, that’s going to have to be one helluva great film. Because, folks, this is the one to beat.

In fact, the combo of District 9, Observe and Report, and Up makes me think that we’re pretty much done for the year. Yes, I’ll see other films. I’ll enjoy some of them, I’m sure. But we’ve hit an apex; I don’t see how anybody can top this. Keep trying though. Films that set the bar this high should drag everyone up to the next level.

Yeah, I loved District 9. It’s not truly a summer movie, but acts like one. It feels like Children of Men getting a Memorial Day Weekend release. When people crow about a movie coming along and giving “good-old fashioned summer movie thrills” without too much hoopla and stupidity, they usually mean the movie fulfilled the premise of straightforward entertainment without being, say, a Michael Bay flick. But District 9 is a miraculous hybrid: an intelligent, mid-budget movie produced with the mentality of the independent filmmaker, yet delivering on the thrills that should have come from movies like Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And those are appropriate comparisons, considering that all three movies have big bipedal machines blowing the bejeepers out of things. But only in District 9 does that sight exhilirate me. By the time the action finale comes around, director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp, actor Sharlto Copley, and the VFX people had so sucked me into their story and its reality that I couldn’t help but get sweaty palms and gasp and cheer along with the rest of the audience to the blood n’ thunder.

Movies that make you feel that bizarre loss of time, the utter immersion, the reality warping when you leave the auditorium: those are the reasons I keep going back to theaters, hoping to get that sensation again. It’s a fix. District 9 is my new dealer.

The allegory of the movie is obvious from the moment the faux-documentary footage detailing the last twenty-eight years since a spaceship settled over Johannesberg, South Africa, starts playing. Yes, we’re looking back at Apartheid. I was in high school during the final age of Apartheid, and I graduated the year Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. I vividly recall seeing footage of the riots and shootings in the townships, and this came back to me immediately when I saw the aliens, known as “prawns” (either derogatorily because they are “bottom feeders,” as one interview subject suggests, or because “they look like prawns,” another claims), struggling in their shanty villages where the humans have moved them. Certainly, director Blomkamp knows all of this from much more immediate experience: he was born in Johannesberg in 1979. But by looking at South Africa of the 1980s through the lens of science fiction in 2009, we are also looking at debates today with immigration, refugees, and paranoia of the “Foreign Other.”

District 9 isn’t subtle about these points. But its story works so well built on this unsubtle allegory that it doesn’t harm the film at all or make it heavy-handed. In fact, I won’t bring up the social text of the film again, because it speaks so well for itself.

The film’s narrative is split between source footage, such as the documentary that opens it, live news feeds, security cameras, and interviews; and the traditional objective third-person camera. This is a tricky balance for a filmmaker, and the movie weaves between the two styles constantly. But the confidence on display makes the styles virtually seamless. Unless you are really watching hard, you won’t notice when the film at last commits to the objective style after relying on the documentary style for most of the early scenes.

I won’t give away much of the story—I want viewers seeing this as fresh as possible—but here’s what I think I can safely explain. Aliens have landed over Johannesburg, apparently sick and unable to operate their own mothership so they can leave. The live trapped as third-class citizens, misunderstood by most humans as trash, in their ghetto of District 9. The film even goes out of the way at first to show the insectoid “prawns” as wretched and disgusting. The aliens’ presence is monitored by a corporation called the MNU—and if a corporation is working on this, there must be a profitable motive behind it all. Yet humans cannot manipulate the alien technology because it requires an organic component. Most of the money made from the aliens goes to Nigerian gangs that sell them food (cat-food, actually) in exchange for their various devices.

Then a smiling bureaucrat at MNU, a pleasant fellow named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), starts to execute the company’s plan to re-locate all 1.8 million aliens to a new camp. Something goes very wrong… or it goes very right, depending on whom you ask. A battle is coming, and the first strikes will come from unexpected places, and unusual heroes will appear.

The final thirty minutes of District 9 is the most thrilling thing you will sit through this year, I guarantee. The action is tied into an emotional battle, and you’ll be amazed at how differently you view the prawns by this point. The movie isn’t afraid to splatter blood and less loose with mayhem either. Although the fight occurs on a smaller scale than in the usual summer blockbusters, it feels like the Battle of Waterloo in the impact it makes.

About the “prawns”: Imagine Engine has crafted CGI figures into real characters better than anyone has done since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The growth of prawns into the co-stars with actor Sharlto Copley is a slow but beautiful process.

Poor Sharlto Copley will be ignored come Oscar time, and it’s a crime in the making. The arc of the character he traces in Wikus is enormous, and he turns into the most unusual hero I’ve seen on film this year. (I don’t count Ronnie in Observe and Report as a hero.) Wikus is one of us, but he also goes places we wouldn’t dare. He’s not larger than life, but manages to make us wonder if we could rise the way he does and finally make the decisions her does. Copley, I’m watching out for you… when the Oscar noms come out and your name isn’t on the list, I’ll do some shouting. (Yeah, I’m sure you fell completely relieved now.)

I’ve thanked Peter Jackson for many things, especially The Lord of the Rings films and the cool-kids-with-toys re-make of King Kong. Here’s another thank you: Peter Jackson, thank you so much for giving Neill Blomkamp the chance to make this vision come to life on screen. And Neill Blomkamp, thank you for just being so damn awesome. You have a great career ahead of you, and I’ll be following closely.