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Movie Review: District 9

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Thank God for Peter Jackson. The man has vision. The story of District 9 goes, director Neill Blomkamp was tapped to direct the movie based on the Halo video-game series. When that project died, Jackson, who was one of the producers, handed Blomkamp $30 million and told him to go make whatever he wanted. The result was District 9, an expansion of his 2005 short, Alive in Johannesburg.

It's hard to imagine a major studio taking a risk like that on a relatively untried director. But as a filmmaker himself, Jackson evidently saw potential in Blomkamp, and the value of giving him free reign over his own material. And the risk has paid off. The film is very good, and on its opening weekend it came in first place at the box office, pulling in $37 million.

As publicly held corporations, the major studios have always been risk averse. Sequels, comic book and television adaptations, monopolize theater screens throughout the summers because of their built-in fan base and the ease of marketing them. When a unique vision by a little-known auteur is given the green light, it is usually slated for a fall release in hopes of garnering attention for Oscar season. As a summer blockbuster, an independently financed event flick like District 9 is practically an anomaly.

Which raises a question about the virtues of having business men make all the creative financing decisions for the studios. What if they consulted with the actual artists they work with for budgeting decisions, for green-lighting? It's food for thought. And considering that it was made for the paltry sum of $30 million, District 9 could serve as a viable new production model for this industry, mostly stuck in the past.

District 9 likely will not be in the running for Best Picture this year, but it's imbued with much of the same emotional resonance-cum-social awareness, that Oscar contenders often have in common.

Having seen the movie, as I write the phrase "District 9," I am overcome by the potency of it's meaning. So what is District 9, exactly? It is a slum that has been developed over two decades on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. The residents? Aliens. From outer space. What does District 9 represent? It represents the human instinct that fears and loathes the outsider. It represents, appropriately, xenophobia.

For director and co-writer, and South African native, Neill Blomkamp, the slum stands as an allegory for the apartheid he grew up around. From the opening scene, we are hurled headlong into the back-story where we learn that the malnourished and, well, alien, aliens were found huddled in their massive space ship, which descended to several thousand feet above the city and remained immobile for a matter of weeks. Not knowing quite what to do with them, the government houses them, at first temporarily, in what comes to be referred to as District 9.

With what the citizens of South Africa find to be filthy habits, bizarre and anti-social behaviors, and an ugly appearance (they are derogatorily referred to as "Prawns," because they resemble the small shrimp-like crustacean), the aliens come to be viewed first as an underclass, and then as a threat to the safety and welfare of the citizens, and to their culture and society at large.

Signs, which you may have seen in your local bus stop as part of Sony and Tri-Star's clever advertising campaign, are posted saying that no aliens are allowed: on buses, at certain restaurants, probably in public swimming pools and water fountains. The residents of District 9 become cut off socially, economically, even legally, from the outside world. And the slums bloom.

Our protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe, performed with dedication by newcomer Sharlto Copley, is a blase bureaucrat, utterly representative of the status quo. Through a nepotistic connection, he is selected to head up a program for alien relocation to a highly suspect desert encampment. He goes about his job with the same blind sense of professional duty inherent to a top down government bureaucracy, where accountability is measured in numbers, not 'customer' satisfaction.

His biases are glaringly obvious. This lends a certain credence to the realism of his character, especially since Copley, in his first ever role, tends to slip into self-conscious improv mode, a la NBC's The Office.

The incisive script, by Blomkamp and newbie Terri Tatchell, buoys the film when it becomes weighed down by any of these ultimately peripheral flaws. There is a well written scene near the beginning about lack of communication between a racist (specist?) upper class, and the lower class, perceived to be inferior. Note that the Prawns and humans have learned one another's languages, although both seem to speak exclusively in their own. Perhaps a metaphor about mutually participatory communication breakdown? In the scene, Van De Merwe is trying to get a Prawn resident of one of the slum shacks to sign an eviction paper, giving the government legal right to transfer he and his son to the desert camp. At first, Van De Merwe condescends and uses legalese to obfuscate the issue, fully expecting this uneducated alien to sign the paper as its thoughts reel in confusion.

When the alien asks to read it, and then announces the illegality of the agreement, Van De Merwe does not drop the patronizing act, but rather mumbles to his partner (to paraphrase) "I think we have a smarter one here. We're going to have to use a different approach." He turns right back to the alien, and in the same impersonal tone, informs him that, unless he signs the form, his son will be removed from his custody due to the health hazards in their shack; health hazards that are, by all appearances, identical to those in every other shack in the slum. Although the alien has already proven his intelligence, and Van De Merwe has accepted it for practical reasons, the human refuses to acknowledge it. The alien cannot win.

Van De Merwe accidentally inhales an alien chemical concoction, to which his body reacts quite strangely. The majority of the movie follows his travails in trying to reverse the effects.

This sympathetic Prawn, who goes by the name Christopher Johnson, ends up being one of the main characters. It is plausible that, based on his development in the plot, Johnson is a stand-in for a Nelson Mandela-like savior of his people. Even if that is not the intention of Blomkamp, he still represents the blind eye that fails to witness the humanity of an oppressed people.

He is also a representative of District 9's higher ambitions. The movie is violent, action packed, and loaded with cool new future tech, but, like all quality sci-fi — with the possible exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey — it's really about the characters trying to cope with life, just like us, only in a slightly different landscape. This is no mere popcorn movie. Or, rather, it is a popcorn movie of the best sort, with characters that you care about, action that derives organically from the storyline, and a well thought out set-up for the sequel, leaving ample room to continue the story, without having to rehash the original's conceits.

The use of special effects is spot on. Instead of making the rookie mistake of lingering on your cool digital creation, and making a highlight of the spectacular effects free from dramatic context, Blomkamp creates digital characters and treats them as such. Thankfully, he knows the movie isn't about the technology or the explosions, which is a quality a lot of others directors would do well to adopt.

And Blomkamp's frenetic documentary style, rather than being affected, is fascinating. In some scenes the camera is a character, acknowledged by those on screen. In others, it would be impossible to imagine how any cameraman could be present. But this style provides the immediacy that locks the viewer onto the screen. And it works in nearly every aspect. Only two things were lacking in Blomkamp's performance: The occasional feeling that the actors were doing improv, prompting your mind to seek comedy in what's on screen, even in a serious situation; and the lack of close-ups on faces, which would have added even more to the character development. That kind of made the story feel impersonal at times. But he mostly makes up for it by tugging on the viewers heartstrings. Indeed, Blomkamp walks a fine line between powerful and schmaltzy, but he manages to stay just barely on the winning side of genuine.

With the exception of Star Trek, this movie trounces any other similar fare released so far in 2009. And in 2008, only The Dark Knight was a better action-thriller. All that said, it's not quite a masterpiece. The very best thing that comes out of District 9 may well be that the risk-averse studios might just consider a little more originality in how they allocate their budgets. Not to say I'm not looking forward to the sequel; I'll be the first in line to get tickets.

Finally, bring the older kids to this one. Sure, it's pretty violent, but the camera doesn't linger. And the story, even if it might be a little hard for them to follow, is guaranteed to affect them. And what more can you ask from a movie?

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  • http://mongo.not.me Mongo

    Great review, and I agree, great movie. I wonder if this will revive the Halo project..

  • http://www.mypassionisbooks.com Fran

    Great review that certainly has me wanting to see this movie.

    Besides, if Peter Jackson, who has a kind of sixth sense about movies and made the best ever LoTR movies, thought Blomkamp deserving and trustworthy enough to hand $30M with free reign to make whatever he wanted, that’s speaks volumes. I can’t to see it.