District 9 (15)
Two thousand and nine had already seen it’s fair share of sci-fi stunners with Transformers, Star Trek, Monsters vs. Aliens and Terminator Salvation all hitting screens before District 9; but with the late surge it has certainly made a claim to be the strongest of the bunch. Of the former Star Trek was the most fully rounded actioner, while Monsters vs. Aliens brought lots of fun so there was plenty of room for District 9 quench our thirst.
The district in question finds us in Johannesburg twenty years after the historic arrival of an alien ship full of over a million aliens known derogatorily as ‘prawns’. These prawns are moved down into a shanty town settlement outside the city where they have lived under the watchful eye of ubiquitous mega corporation MNU (Multi-National Corporation). With resentment towards their truly international neighbours growing, the populous are appeased by MNU’s plan to rehouse the alien colony to slightly further afield in what amounts to a concentration camp. With this in mind they promote Wikus van de Merwe to spearhead the operation, from their Department for Relations with Extraterrestrial Civilizations (who happens to be married to the bosses daughter) and it is from here the fun begins.
District 9 starts in a compelling docu-drama stylization that lends the normally fantastic scenes a visceral realism unlike anything else on screen at the moment. The storytelling is sharp and succinct enough to really pull you into the world that breakout director Neill Blomkamp is selling you. Aliens really have landed. While Michael Mann is busy building hyper real worlds of HD, Blomkamp has built an actual world; dirty, crowded and full of aches and pains. Michael Bay’s effects are in your face, slow motion ejaculations while here they are are nestled into the world only when required, in a way that makes them seem natural. The first 30 minutes of District 9 is beautiful shot in a very dirty way and I was genuinely impressed at how well it all fit together in the early stages, giving me a sense of the South African setting (this film is very un-Hollywood in the way that everyone has a strong well rooted South African accent) that merged seamlessly with the unearthly story.
The visuals are only half of what makes this feel like a fresh and interesting tale. The narrative and characters are both carefully crafted and lovingly put together so that even the films subtle lack of originality is blurred enough to make everything seem original and new. Throughout you can pin-point several strong influences to Blomkamps film such as the metamorphosis suffered by our main character, which heralds memories of David Cronenbergs The Fly, or the corporations spin doctoring and underhanded tactics; presented in a realistic but none the less OCP-like (the evil business behind Robocop) fashion. These are but two of the more obvious ones. The movie also lifts components from more serious issues however, such as South Africa’s chequered political history in the apartheid. There are obvious themes of racism and xenophobia throughout, most obviously indicated by the locals “prawns” references and themes of privatization and social segregation that propel our characters both human and alien.
The synchronisation of the above is extremely well produced. The aliens are expertly designed and are realistic throughout as they interact with the human characters and their surroundings. That such beautifully realised creatures could be created on a budget of just $30 million is quite amazing and summed up best by one reviewer when they quipped that “Michael Bay has dreams that cost more than $30 million.”
While the aliens are excellent, the same cant be said for the general cast of actual human beings in District 9. Bar our protagonist the characters are all one dimensional stereotypes, the evil corporate boss, the disapproving father-in-law, rookie on the job and angry army soldier, each slightly more wooden than the last. That can all be forgiven however due to the stand out performance of main character Wikus (Sharlto Copley). Once I got used to the accent, which I unfairly likened to Boråt initially, I found Wikus to be one of the most realistic, down to earth and convincing anti-hero’s ever portrayed in a film. He is exactly the normal office type you’d expect him to be. He too refers to the aliens as ‘prawns’, he mocks them, teases them and laughs as their ‘pods’ pop, full of their children, after being set aflame for ‘population control’. He is selfish, arrogant and driven by petty human goals and he is in love, simple and as non-Hollywood as it could be. Even though he possesses all these traits you still root for him by the end. Your support may waver here and there as his actions are called into question, but ultimately you have to root for him because he is identifiable and because he is human, flaws and all.
As Wikus is propelled through the story he is the ordinary man placed in the extra-ordinary situation. After being exposed to an alien chemical he begins to metamorphosis making him a prime experiment for MNU as they try to unlock powerful alien weapons technology. Desperate to be human once more and be reunited with his wife he retreats to the alien colony and seeks help from one of them who promises he can turn him back if they can rescue what’s left of the chemical. Queue the start of the films real action sequences, and sadly also it’s downfall.
After the first half hour the films outlook changes from grimy real ‘tv’ to bright, explosive ‘movie’. The rough camera crew and news footage are gone, replaced by expansive overheads and heated action shots. While continuing to be well crafted and including some stunning action sequences (including a particularly stunning sequence that see’s Wikus and his alien friend break into the MNU headquarters) the realistic feel is completely replaced by the cinematic and while there are still the odd documentary style shots here and there, by now they are jarring and actually doing the opposite of what they are intended. The crafted political sci-fi drama begins to wind down into a more standard chase dynamic. Wikus, while growing in heroism never fully makes jump to all out action hero, remaining somewhat selfishly down-to-earth in his motivation, even if he does get a strong, if mildly depressing hero’s end.
Ultimately District 9 succeeds in far more than it fails. It’s an exciting sc–fi actioner which a whip sharp pace and a strong lead that really makes you care about his journey. While it fades to an explosive mildly derivative finish it is not enough to take off the initial shine built by the first 30 minutes. The pace does lead to there being one or two strong plot holes and the surrounding cast of comic book villains do tire mildly but this is not to take away from what is an excellent début hit. The strong narrative and excellent craft point to a directer with much to offer us and with Peter Jackson in his corner Neill Blomkamp certainly has the potential to go on to big things which I will definitely look forward to.