Friday, August 21, 2009
Movie Review: District 9
This past weekend I caught the new film, District 9, from producer Peter Jackson and director / screenwriter Niell Blomkamp. District 9 is a very different science fiction film, shot partially as an interview documentary, partially as a point of view narrative,and partly as a giant epic blockbuster. Yet somehow first time director Blomkemp really keeps the movie held together and gripping. It has a great narrative and directing style, really running the audience through a myriad of emotions.
The film starts off with a truncated history of the first arrival of the alien race, called "Prawns", due to their resemblance to the water dwellers, nearly 20 years ago. They arrived on a giant mothership that is now suspended over Johannesburg, South Africa. Initially the Prawns are set up in short term camps on the ground as housing, but over times the temporary camps become permanent slums in which the Prawns live, scavenging through trash and debris like animals. The initial shock of discovering alien life quickly fades as mankind realizes that the alien technology, including the advanced and much convented weaponry are keys to the prawns specific DNA, making the tech virtually useless to humans.
The prawns are leaderless, having lost the upper structure of their hierarchy on the journey somehow, leaving nearly a million "worker" prawns stranded. Without the mantle of duty or purpose, the prawns descend into a mixture of poverty and prejudice, a modern day apartheid. Meanwhile, the human have formed a multi-national company called MNU to effectively regulate and control the growing population, which after 20 years exceeds 2 million prawns. Many humans want the prawns out of the city and away from them, believing that it should not be their duty to help a race that cannot help us or themselves. As tensions ratchet and violence in the slums, now called District 9, increase, the MNU decide to move the entirety of the prawn race towards a new camp outside of the city. They place a man in charge named Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, who is ordered to evict the entire prawn race from the tenements and confiscate any contraband he finds within.
Wikus is generally a nice guy, well meaning, who speaks the prawn language. Unfortunately during the armed eviction process, he is contaminated by a foreign substance found in an unknown piece of prawn equipment. This substance begins to change Wikus on a molecular level, integrating him with prawn DNA making him one of the most valuable people on the planet, for with the knowledge in him, humanity can finally get it's hands on prawn technology. Wikus though, doesn't want the transformation, a transformation that begins to take over his whole body, slowly changing him more and more. Wikus then must re-evaluate his perceptions of the world, when his only chance at salvation, lies with the very people he has tried to control.
District 9 was made on a very slim budget, only 30 million dollars. It doesn't have a name cast, or even an actor you have ever heard of before. Director/screenwriter Blomkamp was a visual effects artist before this film and had directed some minor work before, but District 9 is his first real foray into any type of mainstream media. He manages to squeeze better effects and story elements out of this film and this budget, than many of the summer's biggest blockbusters. I personally guarantee that the effects work in this film will destroy whatever you may see in GI Joe, which had a $175 million budget. The mix of practical makeup and CGI are perfect, and the climatic final fight sequence is one of the best science fiction battles ever put to film. Alien weaponry versus mankind's own weapons, including a giant mech fight.
You have to thank producer Peter Jackson for recognizing the talent in Blomkamp and for backing this film. His pedigree (and effects house!) have a huge effect in the success and marketability of the film. While only a producer, it's Jackson that has the clout to get the film made and distributed and Jackson has made very few mistakes in the choices he has made at the movies.
Despite having an unknown cast, each actor effectively inhibits the role they are cast in, from Wikus's emotional journey of change and acceptance, to his wife's battle with the physical changes in him, Blomkamp really stages some striking similarities to real world problems. Things like prejudice, racism, separatism, apartheid, hate crimes, and even concentration camps and poverty all have a light shed on them. A light that is filtered through a science fiction tale, but a light none the less. It forces the viewer to confront many harsh realities about the world we live in, a world where these views and these injustices still have merit with in some countries. It's a hard look at our own perceptions, and how the view of the world isn't always the right one.
My only complain, how ever minor, is that sometimes the film forgets that it is shot with a documentary style. Many times throughout the film they cut to interviews about the prawns or Wikus, or show the action in the movie from the public security cameras. It treats the film that we are watching events as they unfold. Sometimes though the movie gets caught up in the blockbuster aspect, especially in the final climatic fight,where the film is much more traditionally shot. I didn't mind it really so much, I just thought it a minor matter of inconsistency.
This is easily one of the top 5 movies of the year so far. It's a film that can potentially change the way we look at science fiction and movies in general. I loved District 9, especially in a summer of so many bad films, it's great to see something refreshing and original. This is definitely a movie that should be on your watch list. Check it out.