Monday, August 17, 2009
District 9 And the Year of Sci-Fi
Dir. Neil Blomkamp
* * * *
contains: gore, violence, language
This may be the year of sci-fi. From the incredible conclusion of the best tv series of all-time (Battlestar Galactica), Duncan Jones' Moon, Ronald Moore's brilliant but canceled Virtuality, the instant classic that was Torchwood's jaw-dropping fifth series, and even to a lesser extent the flawed but ambitious Knowing, and Watchmen, this has been a landmark year for cerebral and complex sci-fi visions. District 9 is not only the next great sci-fi film this year, this is one of the great sci-fi films period.
On the surface, I was expecting this to be an ably made re-exploration of Alien Nation territory (the aliens as immigrant motif) made with a Cloverfield-like aesthetic. That alone would have been an interesting film, both films are quite good, and the former is a minor classic that should be revisited. But this film was a complete surprise; a hybrid film in several senses that succeeds nearly universally.
The film concerns the “Prawns” an insect-like race which “landed” over Johannesburg. Upon inspection, the aliens are found malnourished, sick, and confused; their technology seemingly inoperable. The government places them in a seperate area of town, a slum called District 9. As the film opens, the government wants to move the Prawns further out of the way (reminiscent of aspects of Apartheid, which Blomkamp got the idea for the film, growing up in a divided South Africa). That's where we meet the subject of a documentary, Wikus Van de Mere, an aspiring bureaucrat and son-in-law of the president of MNU, a private security firm and weapons developer (sort of a Blackwater meets Haliburton), who is called upon, as a big promotion, to get the Prawns to “agree” to sign over their land, for even smaller plots miles to the north (here the film very reminiscent of the way the US handled the Indian Removal act). He runs into Christopher Johnson, a prawn who seems to be in some sort of underground movement, and then something occurs during his mission which changes everything.
The film works as a political allegory, a satire of colonialism, an action film, a political thriller, a buddy flick (the relationship between Wikus and Christopher is unlike any other that I can think of in sci-fi; a non-humanoid alien being, acting as protagonist in many respects), a Cronenberg-esque shocker, and astute techno-thriller. While the technology in the film is imaginative, it's the moments of verisimilitude, often told with a sense of humor, where the film really shines. But above all, the way the film handles the transformation of its two main characters is commendable, and with the little backstory we are given, that one of the characters is non-human (but not sentimentally made to be humanoid) and that this is Sharlto Copley's (Wikus) first acting job, simply astounding.
The film is beautifully shot, the fx are good, not great, but not distracting, and the film doesn't rely on them (but does showcase economical editing and a great sound-scape). Some of the technology in this film reminded me of the video game Half-Life, and its sequels. This film is almost as much of a shot in the arm to its genre, as Half-life was to first-person shooters. The Academy Awards doubled its Best Picture nominees. It will be interesting to see if we get five more self-satisfied Oscar bait films, or if they'll reward more “dangerous” films that have every right to be there, like District 9.