Saturday, August 15, 2009

"District 9"

District 9 - Directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Sharlto Copley - Rated R

I'm giving this a Vader. I'm a sucker for great sci-fi.

District 9, the part faux documentary, part straight up sci-fi film, is one of the most enjoyable, compelling, thought provoking films of the year. This is what great science fiction films are all about. There are amazing visuals, the action is brutal and impressive, and there are mirrors held up to humanity.

There's another aspect of sci-fi that is vital, though: the story. District 9 is set in an alternate reality where a giant alien mothership has basically broken down above Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982. The aliens are extracted and put into "temporary" refugee camps. After years of rioting and corporate experiments, it's finally time to move the aliens, or prawns, as they are called in the film, to a new, secluded area. (Note: in the film it is stated that “prawn” is a derogatory term, but they never give an accepted name for the aliens, so I’m sticking with “prawn.”) Enter Wikus (newcomer Sharlto Copley), an overly polite field operative placed in charge of serving the prawns eviction notices. There's no reason to go into much more detail of the plot, suffice it to say that things obviously do not go smoothly during the eviction process. I knew very little about the film before I watched and I think I enjoyed it more because of it, so I don't want to ruin anyone else's time with this film, so I'll get into the world of prawn refugee camps.

This is something quite different for an alien film. The prawns are discovered in their mother ship malnourished and without clear leadership. They don't declare war on the world or anything like that, they just stay in the camps, sifting through garbage. The image of what would normally be a frightening alien chewing on a tire (apparently the prawn love chewing rubber) or crunching into a can of cat food (the prawns' favorite food) is both hilarious and original. Taking the scare factor out of the aliens, but leaving the mystery of how they came to be here is a brilliant move.

The idea of a helpless alien race is interesting enough, but the idea alone won't work on film. It has to look real, and this film looks great. The aliens, who are complete CG, look like they are actually in the environment. Part of that is helped by the documentary style, but the whole film isn't shot like that and the aliens look just as real in a steady shot as they do in a handheld shot. I also want to point out that while this him has documentary style, it is by no means as shaky as Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project.

Back to the aliens; the design of the alien is a great counterbalance that creates disgust/fear and sympathy. The prawn's mouth of tentacles and spindly body give a creepy quality, but the eyes show feelings and give the alien's, dare I say, humanity.

The humanity of the aliens is what sets this film apart from your typical "when aliens attack" movie. Believe it or not, by the end of this film, you will probably be rooting for the aliens. That's not to say that humans are shown to be hatemongers and evil profiteers of another race's misery. Well, some are, like the weapon manufacturing corporation MNU (Multi-National United), who are only dealing with the refugee camps in an attempt to master alien weapon technology (which can only be used by the prawns). But I didn't sympathize with the aliens just because some of the human characters were evil. I was rooting for the prawns because the movie makes actual characters out of a few of them and their goal was more compelling to me than MNU's. It also helps that the prawns are given human names, like Christopher Johnson, even though they are incapable of speaking human languages. Little touches like that make me love this film.

The humanity and character qualities of the aliens are great, but this film still has a human as the main character. Wikus represents the middleground of prawns and humans. Early on, he's nice and all, but there's a kind of evil quality in the way that he treats the aliens. He seems to enjoy killing prawn fetuses far too much, laughing as they burn, and giving an unplugged feeding tube to a soldier as a souvenir of his "first abortion." So he's nice, but creepy. He changes a bit after experiencing life with the aliens (once again, I don't want to get specific) and he starts to see the humanity, or human-like qualities, of the prawns. Wikus basically represents the viewer's progression while watching the movie. At first, the prawns are kind of funny and pathetic and you don't really care if one of them gets shot during the evictions because it's an alien. But somewhere in the middle, you realize that the prawns are not nameless masses who live only to dig through garbage. They have personalities, they have children, and they have feelings.

This is where we get to the mirror held up to society. Obviously, this film offers a viewpoint on how refugees are treated in our world. At one point, a person being interviewed says, "We don't want them here. They must go. I don't know where. Just go." This is the mentality many people have when foreigners enter their land en masse. If people would witness the conditions that most refugees live in, they might think twice about hating them. But that's not the point of the film, so don't think that this sci-fi action movie is trying to preach to you. District 9 just has elements that make you think. It doesn't try to tell you what to think. That's the marking of a great film to me; a film that gives you something to discuss after it's over other than how cool it was when that guy got disintegrated. Although it is pretty cool when people get disintegrated in this movie.

District 9 attempts to be many things: creepy (an experiment/autopsy lab scene is chilling), funny (cat food), shocking (alien abortion and interspecies prostitution), thrilling (when the alien weapons first get used), heart breaking (Wikus' relationship with his wife), and thought provoking (the treatment of refugees). It succeeds on all accounts. But if you want a simple, succinct review of the movie, here goes. District 9 is just plain awesome.