Tuesday, September 1, 2009

[Film] District 9

It’s not particularly original to rave online about this movie – everybody’s doing it and the sales figures says that lots of other people are seeing it besides me. But the movie impressed me enough that I was motivated to write about it anyway.

Good sci-fi movies are to be savored, treasured, and appreciated. There are so many things that can go wrong with sci-fi movies. Like with any film, the acting, lighting, direction, camerawork, editing, sound, plot and dialogue can all be bad, which makes the movie hard to watch and enjoy. But in sci-fi, you tend to have a whole array of potential issues that can also fail – such as believable physics (for everything from spaceships to how creatures move), special effects (from explosions to weapons), and xenobiology (aliens that make sense in how they look and how they live). District 9 wasn’t a revolutionary film – the backstory wasn’t much different from Alien Nation (which I also liked) – but it was a really good film because it hit on all cylinders.

The aliens were suitably alien to feel like they were really from elsewhere, yet they blended seamlessly with the humans in the film. The alien technology (and the special effects that went with it) had a realistic feel to it. But for all of that, what made the film work was that it wasn’t really a film about aliens. The film was about a human cube-dweller. His name might has well have been Dilbert and he would have been just as much at home in New York or Los Angeles as he was in Johannesburg. This poor slob gets saddled with a crappy job and doesn’t even realize it. More, he attacks it with enthusiasm and relative good humor despite the fact that his work, evicting aliens from one slum and forcing them to move to a worse one, is clearly despicable. And when he gets his come-uppance, in the form of contamination by alien technology, we still identify with and feel for the guy.

District 9 is also a good film because it has quite a few genuinely funny moments. Most of them are dark comedy, but not in the tedious, boring, hideously unfunny way of Burn After Reading or the like. Again, through humor we identify with Wikus Van De Merwe, the everyman just trying to do his crummy job and go home to his wife.

The film is split into essentially two parts. The first half or so of the movie is told documentary-style, as cameras follow Van De Merwe from his office through the actual eviction. The second half is more action-oriented, but still with the shaky, steady-cam style of a documentary just without the presence of an overt camera crew. They flow seamlessly one to the next, and I can’t say I noticed when exactly the change occurred and the documentary crew disappeared. As the film progresses, we are introduced to the alien “prawns” and find them to be more than just child-minded scavengers crawling around the giant garbage heap of their shantytown home. We meet “Chris,” an alien who’s sharper than most, and we can even identify with him. As is often the case in this sort of film, we end up seeing the people as the monsters and the aliens as having real humanity (with all of its capacity for error and failure and even betrayal). Again, that’s hardly original, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a theme that people understand and relate to, and it makes for solid entertainment with a bit of a message that doesn’t club you over the head with its morality.

So kudos to Neill Blomkamp for turning his short film Alive in Joburg into a hit movie. He did the hard work, made a really decent film, and is reaping the rewards. If all sci-fi films could hit on all cylinders the way District 9 does, the world (of entertainment, anyway) would be a much better place.

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