What's often lost in summer's rush of big-budget, action blockbusters is the fresh vision of a dreamer.
More often than not, studio action films don't start with a story to tell but a concept—a concept for big explosions, thrilling sequences, and big box-office gains. Last year was an exception: Big, studio-driven franchise vehicles (The Dark Knight, Iron Man) were fueled by story and character. But this summer, the big-budget, big box-office action blockbusters are pulling up empty. The genre's lone fresh breath has come from an out-of-nowhere alien movie made by a rookie director from South Africa.
The story behind District 9 is fascinating. Based on some short films he made, Neill Blomkamp was chosen by producer Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) to direct his film adaptation of the video game Halo. Five months into preproduction, though, the studio canned it. The young director was devastated until someone suggested that Blomkamp—and the team assembled to make Halo—just make a different movie, his movie. Blomkamp started writing, Jackson financed it, Sony eventually picked it up, and the result is what a Chicago Tribune article humorously dubbed "the world's first autobiographical alien apartheid movie."
The movie begins as a supposed documentary about District 9, a refugee aid camp built for aliens who arrived on Earth almost 30 years ago. We learn through news clips, interviews and other assembled footage that when their massive space ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, humans expected an attack or a message from a higher intelligence. Neither came. Eventually, humans made the first move which led to an encounter of the third kind unlike anything we've seen in alien-invasion films. And now, three decades later, District 9 is a frightful slum under the control of a military contracting company called Multi-National United (MNU). Riots, hatred, selfish ambition and violence reign in Johannesburg. People's patience has run out. Everyone just wants the aliens to go home.
The documentary's focal point is MNU field agent Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), on his biggest day: leading the move of the now 1.8 million aliens to a new camp further out of town. The documentary sizzles with energy and mystery as it foreshadows a controversial and mysterious incident that will draw the world's attention to District 9, MNU, and Wikus himself.
There is much to hail as original, refreshing, and inventive about Blomkamp's surprising—albeit flawed—first film. Obviously, most striking here is Blomkamp's use of science fiction's ability to camouflage the known with the fantastic as a means to study the human condition. Still, District 9 is not preachy about race relations and bigotry. Instead, Blomkamp simply takes the reality he knows—having grown up in the apartheid of Johannesburg—and places it within the absurd. Thus, his fictional world gains weight and familiarity. We don't know what it feels like to live with aliens among us, but in this relatable context, imagining how we'd react comes much easier. After all, many of the man-on-the-street interviews used in the film are not actors but real South Africans talking about Nigerian slums. Looking at the history of how humans treat one another, it's devastating to think what we'd do when we can't say, "Hey, we're all humans!"
The culture, reality, and technology of these aliens are some of the most fresh and innovative science-fiction concepts in years. Known by the derogatory term "prawns," these shellfish-like aliens are presented in such a realistic way, thanks both to visual effects and story, that it's easy to forget they're fictional. In fact, the impeccable special effects, the innovative use of the documentary style, and the story's gritty reality combine to completely sell the believability of the other-worldly existing within real-life South Africa. The true selling-point is in the details—the sonic-booms of the spaceship, the messy effects of alien weaponry, and the MNU stickers attached to aliens' heads. Many more stories could be told in this immersive, created world.
In fact, while the prawns-human dynamic is powerful, it's pretty much just a backdrop for a man-on-the-run fugitive story involving Wikus. And when talking about bold film innovation, you have to mention making this character a sci-fi hero. After all, the nerdy pencil pusher Wikus is hardly the typical action film star. Have any other sci-fi heroes ever made their wives paper-mache gifts before? This guy is more Michael Scott from The Office than John Connor. But Wikus is a fully-drawn character in whom we see sweetness and ugliness, compassion and selfishness. His arc is fascinating. In fact, when we see at the end a documentary clip of him "shot" before the film's events, it's shocking to remember who this man used to be. Because we identify with Wikus, his horrors and victories are all the more poignant.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from two identity crises. First, Blomkamp has said that he made this film to be a balance between a heady, indie sci-fi film and an American action movie. When it's the former, it is top rate. When it's the latter—as most of the second half is—it falls into the same traps of many Hollywood studio action flicks: cheap story shortcuts, leaps in logic that test the suspension of disbelief, and overused conventions like bad guys who'd be far more effective if they didn't give so many long speeches. In fact, the plot unravels toward the end into gory, frenetic action. (Take note: This is mature sci-fi with a horror bent. While not scary, the film is dark, gruesome and gritty.)
Secondly, while the film is innovative in the use of a provocative, enthralling documentary style, it frequently breaks that wall, jumping in and out of the faux-documentary convention. Yes, most of the film is seen through news footage, a camera crew following Wikus and security cameras, but for long stretches, District 9 will randomly snap into normal cinematic omnipresence. It's not only jarring, but it cheapens the story's delivery. Presenting a story fully from the narrow view of "available footage" is bold and tricky (see Cloverfield); opening it randomly to show the bigger picture (like the aliens' or bad guys' perspectives) feels easy and heavy-handed—as if the audience isn't trusted to put missing pieces together.
Overall, District 9 is a bold and inventive science fiction vision that mostly excels but stumbles in the details. Still, this is advanced sci-fi that offers fun, thrills, and excitement (two words: robot suit) at a deeper level.Discussion starters
- What do you think happens from here? If Wikus stays the way he is at the end, do you find the resolution satisfying or is it only a happy ending if Christopher does as he promises? Is there enough resolution in just Wikus' journey to look out for others?
- What does it mean to be human? Do the biblical commands to love others extend to non-humans? It's easy to watch District 9 and think we'd treat these aliens better, but would we?
- What revelations about our world does seeing this imaginary world provide you?
- Why is the human condition so prone to hating "the other"—whoever is not like us? What is at the heart of that trait?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
District 9 is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. This is gritty sci-fi for mature audiences. While it doesn't have the scares of a horror movie, it certainly has the gore. Limbs are amputated, aliens are shot point-blank execution style, and lots of bodily fluids (blood, vomit [human and alien], alien urine, etc.) are shown. A pack of predators tear apart a man's body. Offensive language is pretty constant, including the Lord's name taken in vain and barrages of f-words during intense sequences. A man is said to have had intercourse with an alien—and a tabloid-like photo is shown. Nigerians living in District 9 practice witchcraft to seize the aliens' powers for themselves—this means eating the alien flesh.
Photos © Sony Pictures
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