Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

"District 9" is a critical look on discrimination in a place where there's been plenty of it: South Africa. The film is about an alien ship landing over Johannesburg. These aliens (we never find out what they're really called, we just get a slur-- "Prawn"), are found and sequestered in District 9, where they have lived since 1982. This is (according to and about 36 years into Apartheid, although in the film there is no mention of it at all. It may be an alternate universe, where Apartheid hasn't happened. Whichever, the film uses your knowledge to create an "underlying racial tension" (as they say).

The film is set in 2010, meaning the Prawns have been located in District 9 for roughly 28 years. Also interesting is the fact that Nigerians have been grouped together with the aliens, which says that human racism has not even been solved. As the film commences, the public is protesting against having to live with such creatures, and the MNU (Multinational United) is moving them to a new area with tents. Later on the film, the hero of sorts, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), compares this to a concentration camp, evoking thoughts yet another bit of prejudice. We first meet Wikus, a MNU worker and a white South African, evicting aliens from their dwellings. This is where we first encounter the aliens, computer-generated fellows who speak in a weird dialect, using relatively cliche bits of dialogue, and with an appetite for cat food. The film is shot with a handheld camera, evoking realism. The violence that transpires is challenged with looking realistic, and it is more in the vein of "Look what I caught on camera!" This inspires a question: do you aim more for a more true-to-life perspective or do you go more in the way of "Transformers," which uses regular film to capture sensationalism? "District 9" does both, in a way, and I'll discuss that more later.

Anyways, Wikus experiments with an alien canister and sprays himself with a highly dangerous substance, which in turn makes him sick. I won't say exactly what happens as a result, but I will remark that MNU has a heyday over it. It satirizes the lengths that labs go to to get new information, and also later pokes fun at the media's way of blurring stories. The problem is, the film goes in an entirely predictable direction from this point onward. We meet up with a character from earlier on, and Wikus the nerd gets to operate some high tech weaponry (said guns smack of "Halo," which was set to be Neill Blomkamp's directoral debut).

As I said before, "District 9" calls to mind "Transformers" in its (as Ebert said and Deborah Lipp said of "Thunderball") "climactic sequence, where following who's participating and such is very hard" and (as others said) "the whole scene is very dull." Who's ultimately painted as the villain is a weak choice, too: the main man from the eviction mission who Vikus complained to about "efficiency." He's a cardboard cutout, as you might expect. There's also a massive dependancy on Snorricam, the method in which the camera is strapped to an object and... well, it's hard to explain, but you'd know when you saw it. I'm getting off topic here in regards to a topical movie. Not a good sign.

I won't go into huge detail about the main performance, which is, in the standard way for action pics, not all that great. Copley is "nervy" like they say about Nicolas Cage, and also uses the word "man" a lot like Russell Crowe in "State of Play." He does, however, radiate with a charming quality, at least at the beginning. Just like the movie, he's better earlier on. Everything into consideration, "District 9" maintains a fascinating metaphor regarding intolerance, and does it in an innovative, documentary-style way. But, as Ebert said, it mimics other recent cinema (like "Iron Man," with regards to the battle suit) when it manifests itself as a slam-bang, (to quote the MPAA rating) "bloody" piece. It would have worked better (if the end had been retooled) as a novel, where it could've had, in the right hands, a better impact, since there wouldn't be so much clutter to prevent it from greatness. They should call it "Prawn Like Me." C

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