Friday, August 21, 2009

District 9: Warning -- This summer movie may induce thought.

On the 90-degree afternoon on which I saw District 9, the first three trailers were all about violence. What were they? The first was something about god being pissed off with us again and sending angels to exterminate the human race. Angels do not appear to be very nice. Lots of violence. Second was…. What? Violence. Violence sells, but I can't even remember what the second and third trailers were about a few hours later, so I propose that the adverts didn’t work.
District 9 runs under two hours and includes plenty of violence. But there’s a story here. A thoughtful story played so realistically I almost believe there’s a concentration camp for extraterrestrials two hundred miles or so south of Johannesburg. Here are 9 points about “District 9.”

  1. The story follows, in largely documentary style, Wikus Van De Merwe, a terribly ordinary employee of a private company, Multi-National United (“MNU”), doing government work by dealing with the aliens whose mother ship came to a hovering halt above Johannesburg over twenty years earlier. Wikus’ assignment: To oversee the removal of the alien residents of the ghetto designated ‘District 9’ inside Johannesburg, far away to a larger compound hidden from public view. As played by Sharlto Copley, Wikus is the perfect patsy for whatever may (and doubtless will) go wrong. He’s in over his head, but determined to prove himself to the person who gave him the assignment -- his father-in-law, a major player in MNU, played by a chilling Piet Smith.
  2. “District 9” is what science fiction is supposed to be. Science fiction has a not terribly long but honorable history of telling stories about our own society disguised as another. The science fiction conceit here is a first encounter with an alien race in our own back yard and how we respond. Had this taken place in the U.S., you can be sure we would have nuked the damn thing and killed ourselves – some quickly, some slowly, but all of us – in the process. Then we would have bemoaned our hapless fate, instead of examining how we got there. The South Africans portrayed chose a different course, and that allows us to deeply examine the human response.
  3. We follow Wikus into the field where he and his colleagues knock on shack doors to ask the alien residents to sign a legal document acknowledging they’ve been given 24 hours notice of their eviction to the far off tent city, District 10. The aliens communicate with clicks, subtitled for the audience’s understanding. It is perfectly clear the humans do not understand them, however. Neither do the humans see the absurdity of asking a claw-handed alien to sign a legal waiver. Only one alien clicks back in understanding of the form, and even the law. The humans have named him ‘Christopher Johnson.’ The filmmakers do this throughout, showing humans arrogantly expecting aliens to understand and respect their bureaucracies. It’s hilarious.
  4. Everyone in a leadership position – that is, someone who can give orders to other humans and expect them to be obeyed – is white. Any human can order about and abuse the aliens – called prawns because, yes, they do look like prawns. Eating shrimp or any other crustaceans will be impossible for this reviewer for some time. Initially the aliens are difficult to look at for the squeamish. Little by little though, we see more. The fragments of clothing, the frightened eyes, the different stances clearly denoting near-human emotional responses to the situation at hand. And the design and execution are brilliant.
  5. Special effects: Wow. ‘Transformers 2’ (and some say the first as well) is visually cluttered, and no size screen can define the combatants. With no one to root for amid the unidentified machine parts, ‘Transformer’ films are just noise and consequently dull. This film has machines, some of which move like robots, all of which are clearly defined, their actions are easy to discern, and you know who’s on what’s side and vice versa. [Spoiler alert: When Wikus climbs into the Nigerians’ stolen machine, almost an homage to Ripley, the audience roars its approval. I sat stunned at the human-like movements and the heartbreaking – wait, that’s too much spoiler.] Suffice it to say, this film has some of the best CGI I’ve seen this year – and yet it cost so little to make that it’s already earned back its costs. How does that make sense, Hollywood?
  6. The film is full of metaphor and symbolism, especially since it’s South African. The offensive commercials hearkening back to our own Civil Rights era are even more poignant in terms of a country with such a recent end to Apartheid. The black soldiers still follow white administrators’ commands, the criminal gang profiteering in the ghetto are Nigerians with old religious beliefs and serious attitude.
  7. For those who want story and meaning mixed in with their explosions, District 9 is for you. MNU is everywhere with mercenaries and scientists to add to the horror. Even an alien child appears to be the property of MNU with a company sticker on his head. The set design of the ghetto, of the MNU buildings, the varying residences all collude to make this feel like the documentary after which it is styled.
  8. That developed story need not interfere with the enjoyment of those who just want blood, guts, gore, barf moments, big weapons, explosions, and pink mist. The movie covers a lot of explosive ground in less than two hours. For those who need gunfire and weapons ever increasing in size and effectiveness, District 9 is for you.
  9. Finally, you won’t recognize these actors. You’ll have no preconceptions as to who’s a good guy, who’s not, who lives, who dies, just like this year’s riveting “The Hurt Locker.” I suppose that means this film may not do well in the American box office despite the explosions, but I certainly hope everyone gets to the theatres to see this one. It’s intense, funny, exciting, unexpected, and far from standard fare.

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