Thursday, August 5, 2010

"District 9" (2009)

Starring Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood and Robert Hobbs
Written by Neil Blomkamp and Terry Tatchell
Directed by Neil Blomkamp

As much fun as "Star Trek" is, and as impressive a technological feat as "Avatar" may be, "District 9" is the best sci-fi flick of 2009.  Based on an earlier short film by director Neil Blomkamp, "District 9" expands that premise into a full-blown narrative examining themes of racism and intolerance, building an Apartheid analogy in a sci-fi setting peppered with lively characters, excellent visual effects and badass action sequences.

Nearly 30 years ago, a massive alien vessel appeared over the planet Earth.  Instead of settling over New York or Los Angeles as Hollywood would often have us believe, the ship comes to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa.  The aliens aboard are sick, malnourished and unorganized.  Soon after, they're ferried down to Earth and set up in camps.  Those camps, after years of crime and unrest, are eventually consolidated in a walled slum referred to as District 9.

Security in District 9 is handled by a private contractor known as Multi-National United, or MNU.  After years of complaints, the South African government has set up a new concentration camp for the aliens far outside the city, and MNU has been charged with serving eviction notices to all two million alien residents of District 9.  In charge of this process is a middle management alien affairs worker, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley).  Wikus is the son-in-law of MNU CEO Piet Smit (Louis Minaar), and is an energetic though mild-mannered pushover.

When he travels into District 9 to begin serving eviction notices, Wikus uncovers an alien laboratory and is accidentally sprayed with some kind of chemical.  The chemical begins to change Wikus' DNA, transforming him into one of the aliens, derogatorily referred to as "prawns" by humans.  Faced with the prospect of becoming a human experiment, Wikus escapes MNU custody and flees to District 9 where he attempts to find a cure for his affliction.  He meets the alien commander, named 'Christopher', who promises to cure him if Wikus can help him return the canister of alien chemical to the mother ship.  This fluid, it seems, is what powers the ship, and the only substance that will allow the aliens to leave Earth and go home.  It is so rare and difficult to process that it has taken Christopher all these decades on Earth to synthesize the small amount Wikus found.

Wikus and Christopher stage a daring assault on MNU to retrieve the fluid, but when they return to District 9 to fix the ship, they are hunted  by MNU forces on one side, and Nigerian gangsters who want the power of Wikus' transformation for themselves on the other.

"District 9" examines some of the same themes as James Cameron's "Avatar," in that it presents a human character who gains unique perspective on aliens most others consider inferior, and ends up fighting on their side.  Though these setups are similar, the differences in execution are vast.  "Avatar" essentially amounts to the most expensive Pocahontas story ever filmed, while "District 9" takes a much more unique approach.  If "Avatar" is the European settling of the New World, "District 9" is definitely the Apartheid race war of South Africa of the 20th century.

Wikus doesn't care for the prawns, not really.  At the beginning of the film he's excited to be serving these evictions - not because he gets pleasure out of causing harm to the aliens, but because he sees it as a chance for advancement within the company. Wikus' motivations throughout much of the film are entirely selfish - first, to look good to his employers, and then to stop his own transformation and become human again.  It's not until the final act when he comes around to how wrong the brutal treatment of the aliens by MNU is, when he accepts that helping these poor creatures at the expense of his own human form, that he does anything that can't be described as self-centered.  It's an excellent bit of growth for the character, as he's dragged kicking and screaming into acceptance rather than simply falling in love with the hot alien princess.

The film is rather uncompromising in its depiction of humanity's racist attitudes towards those that are different.  The prawns are mistreated at every turn, seen as dirty nuisances by everyone in the community.  As MNU begins to evict the aliens, we see Wikus exterminate a hidden batch of eggs (alien reproduction is heavily regulated).  He laughs when he does this, likening the sound of the popping eggs to that of popcorn, and gives another MNU worker a "souvenir of your first abortion".  One might think it hard to care for Wikus when he does this, but Copley infuses the character with such a likable presence that even an awful act as this comes across as darkly comic.  But by the end of the film, Wikus is an entirely sympathetic character.

The true enemy of the film is MNU security chief Ross Pienaar (Robert Hobbs), who actively takes pleasure in killing an maiming the aliens.  "District 9", it seems, also has something to say for the folks who populate the private armies that have operated in places like Iraq in recent years.  Here is a man unburdened by law, given the power to do and treat others as he pleases.  He revels in his position of power over others, a viciously bad person.

Director Neil Blomkamp has created a really entertaining piece here.  "District 9" is a mixture of traditional narrative and faux-documentary, featuring interview and news footage as well as security camera images peppered amongst the more traditional film aspects.  As the film goes on, the news and interview footage becomes a bit more rare, but its use brings a particular realism to the film.  During the action sequences, the camera does act as more of a character, even in the scenes that aren't obviously news footage or interviews.  The cameraman stumbles in reaction to characters being shot or objects exploding around him, which heightens the 'you are there' feel.

The world created around "District 9" is also quite well realized, and fully detailed, from the offices of MNU, to the alien ship hovering silently over the city, to the signs everywhere proclaiming water fountains "for human use only" or state "no non-human loitering."   All of this builds together to create an impression on the viewer, a sort of unsettling familiarity.

The visual effects are pretty excellent as well, a testament to the quality work that can be done on a small budget.  You don't need $300 million to make realistic, great-looking alien creatures.  The aliens in "District 9" are really quite excellent, composited expertly into the live action footage, no matter how much camera movement there is.  Beyond that, they're also given excellent capabilities to emote.  Christopher is a fine piece of work, both as a performance and a technical feat.  The aliens are very expressive, and capable of communicating quite a bit in their movements and facial expressions, especially around the eyes.

The action sequences that dominate the final forty minutes of the film are very well constructed, as the chaos in District 9 escalates, so does the action and weaponry on display.  By the time Wikus takes control of a robotic combat suit, things have exploded into all-out awesome.  It's a reward for the restraint shown in the first half of the film, a cathartic release. 

If there's one complaint I might have about "District 9" is that some of the dialogue can be hard to grasp.  Shot in South Africa, with South African actors, occasionally things get lost in trying to translate those accents.  It's hard to even really call this a complaint; it's not their fault they have a different accent than I.  Most of the really difficult dialogue, such as the lines delivered by the Nigerian gangsters, are subtitled, which is a good move.

"District 9" uses a sci-fi bent to explore how people can be incredibly intolerant of those that are different, those that are poor, those that may simply be in need.  In terms of its characters and narrative, as well as its presentation, I would rank this quite a bit above James Cameron's "Avatar," which can be said to explore many of those same ideas.  It should be noted that "District 9" was also nominated for Best Picture last year alongside "Avatar," but both lost to "The Hurt Locker."  It's too bad that the $2 billion gross of "Avatar" left "District 9" somewhat unnoticed by a wider audience, since "District 9" is the better film.