Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

The thing that I love about District 9 is that it's a true original. While it's not the only movie I've really enjoyed this year, it's the only one that can claim uniqueness — Star Trek and Up both drew on strong, old adventure archetypes, Moon, while clever, took root in plenty of classic sci-fi short stories, Adventureland was yet another coming of age tale, I Love You, Man was narratively conventional Apatovian bromance, The Hurt Locker was a war movie, and Observe and Report was a comedy version of Taxi Driver... but District 9 is something I have never seen before, ever. The closest thing I could draw parallel to is Cloverfield, which also attempted a fusion of sci-fi and vérité, but unlike Cloverfield, District 9 actually has the story and ideas and characters and cool action to back up the hype.

This is a fascinating, brawny, brainy movie; one I'm pretty sure will stand out in film history and millions of words will be written about, so I won't bother expounding in too much length just yet. But I do want to identify three specific elements I really admired about the film and I feel raise it to a level approaching genius: its setting, its sublimely integrated social message, and its protagonist.

The most basic but simultaneously the best twist this movie applies to the fundamental aliens on Earth formula is, as the film actually calls out near its beginning, to have the aliens land not over Manhattan, not over D.C., but over Johannesburg, South Africa. For the viewer (the viewer who doesn't already live in Africa, anyway) this immediately makes the cinematically conventional sight of aliens touching down into something uncharacteristically visceral, immediate, gritty, and dangerous. Violent aliens unite with quietly fascist government officials and brutal military enforcers and power-hungry gang leaders to make sure the viewer is on edge for virtually the entire runtime, which wouldn't work at all if it was simply set in another glossy American city. See last year's tepid The Day the Earth Stood Still remake for a quick and dirty example.

However, like good sci-fi, it isn't the settings and the aliens that bring District 9 to life, but the ideas beating in its heart. As we all know, the film's humans are warmongering fascists who contain the aliens on Earth for their weaponry (giving them the racial epithet-esque nickname of "prawns") but keep them segregated in run-down slums with plans to move them to a concentration camp. The message here is in no way subtle — any viewer over nine over should be able to figure out that this movie is an anti-discrimination, anti-racism, anti-segregation diatribe.

But the reason it works as such without ever feeling heavy-handed or inspiring eye rolls is because it never delivers clunky exposition or moralizing speeches on the topic. It merely lets it sit as fuel in the background, delivering us a cool thriller with cool action so that the subject matter can actually percolate in your mind as you think over the movie's general awesomeness, rather than rolling in one ear, through your brain, and out the other ear like a heavy-handed Crash. Some critics complained that the movie's third act swings towards action rather than climaxing with some fifteen-minute speech on the evils of racism, and while I hate to say someone's completely missed the point on something as subjective as film analysis, these critics have completely missed the point.

But however, like really good sci-fi — uncommonly good sci-fi — even the ideas sit the bench behind rich characters. In the age of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it's easy to forget that an action flick can have memorable characters that significantly develop and grow (seriously, do Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox even have character names, or are they just Shia and Megan?), but District 9's masterstroke is to give us as our lead not some jaded military badass but a pencil-pushing nerd named Wikus van der Merwe. In the film's first act he's basically a South African interpretation of Michael Scott from The Office, goofy and getting pushed around by the aliens and humans and oblivious to everything, including the horror of living as a "prawn."

By starting from this point, we get to watch him truly progress in a dark and fascinating direction and become a better, more assertive, and more empathetic person. You know, bona fide character development! And so when the movie launches into an explosive cacophony of action near its end with Wikus at the center, it actually works, because we — get this — care! Even when a robot mech arrives to get down with the killing, Shia surrounded by fighting robots in Transformers will never cross your mind, because in this movie you actually give a shit whether Wikus lives or dies.

It's also worth noting the the bloody, brutal violence in this film. Plenty of seamless CGI is used to fill out the edges, sure, but the action scenes in District 9 have a genuine muscular oomph completely and utterly absent from the cartoon zipping about in Wolverine or Transformers or G.I. Joe this summer. People get shot and you fucking feel it, and you really see it in red, splattering detail (especially when they get blasted with body-exploding alien weaponry). Disturbing when your heroes are the victims, but when it's the villains, I hadn't heard hooting and cheering and applause like that from an audience in some time.

I'm not sure how much of that gory pizzaz came from producer (and, pre-Lord of the Rings, legendary gore hound) Peter Jackson exerting his influence and how much came from director Neill Blomkamp, but Blomkamp is an extremely exciting new talent and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next. He's got clever ideas and the magic touch with effects, action, and characters. Bam! Total victory!

4 Stars out of 5

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