Wednesday, 24 February 2010

District 9 (2009) - Movie Review - 9/10


20 Years ago, an enormous alien spacecraft drifted to a hovering rest over the South African city of Johannesburg. Within are discovered a race of insectoid aliens derogatorily known as 'Prawns'. These Prawns are in a seemingly broken vessel that has come to rest on Earth, while the creatures themselves have lost their leadership. Due to a hive-like societal structure, the worker populace are somewhat aimless and not exactly of superior intelligence. Wikus Van Der Mere (First time actor Sharlto Copley) is the hapless human tasked with evicting the aliens from their makeshift shanty town of District 9 below the giant craft, in order to relocate them for the benefit of the resentful Human populace. He works for the MNU (Multi National United) who are also one of the largest arms dealers in the world, and currently in the process of trying to master the miscellaneous weapons brought by the aliens. It's not long before Wikus finds himself embroiled in a situation that will have him fighting for his life and re-assessing his priorities and beliefs.

District 9 is that rare thing. A science fiction movie with an allegorical message that is not preachy, and does not compromise it's science fiction elements in the process. On it's most obvious level, it is an allegory for the former apartheid situation in South Africa, and the associated real-life District 6, but it can be read on many other levels, including but not limited to the potential in every race of humanity to act vindictively or dismissively to another they feel as being inferior.

Wikus is presented to us as neither a particularly sympathetic nor loathsome character. He is a perfectly constructed balancing act of a man who is a product of his environment and upbringing. We can see him doing things that are immediately repulsive but unwittingly so to him. Yet likewise, he will make an effort (albeit it somewhat limited) when he sees action being taken that goes against his innate morality. Wikus is without a doubt the greatest strength of District 9. Watching his character work on so many levels, as he grows and changes with the story, is the element that keeps us riveted to the screen. Wikus can be almost humorously inept at times, right through to being occasionally amoral, flawed, yet ultimately becoming sympathetic, courageous and touching.

The story of District 9, from a science fiction perspective, has been used many times in the past, perhaps the most obvious example being the film-to-tv series Alien Nation. Where District 9 succeeds as something new, is by making its alien species less immediately sympathetic. We the viewer are not presented with an easy side to take. The aliens are sometimes stupid and often repugnant in their behaviour, making it all too simple to feel sympathy with the humans who detest them. This is yet another strength of District 9, avoiding the simple and often over-used contrast of 'Good aliens, bad humans' though perhaps as the film continues this is weakened a little with somewhat stereotyped villains. There are also elements of 'body-shock' horror not unlike those often explored by David Cronenberg, that will have you wincing as it questions our ideas of what makes us who we are, and plays on our fears of the worst things that can happen to our bodies.

On a more basic cinematic level, the film is again a careful balancing act. We have all seen the hand-held 'documentary' style of film-making, with movies such as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Again, where District 9 succeeds is in using such techniques for much of its beginning, yet gradually segueing more and more into traditional 3rd person style. As such we do not get tired of the technique, as we can do with the other examples, and because much of that footage in District 9 is shown as either news or security camera feeds, it does not have the badly filmed nausea-inducing tendencies of the above.

One of the most jaw dropping visual aspects of District 9, is its special effects. Amazingly, almost all of the alien creatures were CGI (With very few physical creature effects, such as bodies undergoing autopsy). On the whole, District 9's digital effects are flawless and stunningly photo-real, created using a combination of cutting edge effects from WETA digital (The effects company owned by Peter Jackson and created initially for the Lord of the Rings films) and creature designs that do not require fur or a great deal of moving flesh. This means that even with the film's limited budget, they have been able to use the most positive aspects of the technology without too many of its flaws. Much like the film Starship Troopers, which still dates well in comparison to many of its contemporaries, because it knew where to draw the line in what it could and couldn't do nearly perfectly.

The action in District 9 is also brutal and tough. This isn't your average glamorised blockbuster with wire-stunt batmen, or kung fu experts doing the impossible with nary a bruise or scratch. Bodies are ripped apart, exploded, shot, electrified and generally dismembered in a variety of ways. When the film kicks into its action scenes, they are pulse-poundingly raw and visceral.

District 9 is director Neill Blomkamp's first feature film. Originally he had been recommended by Peter Jackson to direct the feature adaptation of the computer game 'Halo', but when the deal fell through, Jackson reportedly gave Blomkamp thirty million to make a film of his choice (A very small budget for something of this scope and level of effects). Blomkamp then went on to make the full length version of his short film 'Alive in Joburg', which mirrors District 9 almost exactly in general concept and premise. In my view, we are lucky that events unfolded in this way, because I am much happier to see an original piece of work, than yet another miscellaneous video game adaptation.

This is an adult film that has not been watered down to stay safe for the kids. The characters swear repeatedly, and everyone has a tough time of it. It is by no means an 'easy' film to watch, but it will leave a lasting impression and keep you thinking. Is it perfect? No, there are some things that happen too easily for the sake of plot convenience, occasionally unanswered questions that are more frustrating than mysterious, and the story ideas are often far from original. Yet on the whole this is a genuinely impressive, often gruelling and hard-hitting film. I also have it on good authority that the accents and cultural references are dead on the nose. District 9 is neither a video game or comic adaptation, or a remake of an older film. As such it is a real treat amongst all of the other genre offerings of recent years. Just be warned, if you eat out and see a prawn dish, you may find yourself inadvertently uttering an appropriate expletive often used in the film. Trust me, you'll see what I mean...

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