Thursday, August 20, 2009

district 9 [2009]

when i checked the listings to find out what theaters and what times this flick was playing i was suprised to see that the movie, helmed by a rather unknown south african directorr neill blomkamp, and produced by peter jackson whose fx company weta digital had a hand in creating the film's astonishing visual fx, was in wide release rather than the more limited arthouse run that i expected. i avoided reading any reviews before seeing the movie and i was aware of just the bare plot of the film. i expected a rather cerebral, if perhaps violent, play of early 21st warfare, xenophobia, segregation and the commingling roles of government and private industry in the prosecution of police matters and combat. i expected an arthouse film. by the roll of the credits i discovered why blomkamp's turn at cinema was playing at my local cineplex.

not that the movie is a disappointment. it is a near-brilliant miss. sci-fi is good at creating allegories for the times that spawned them. setting the movie in johannesburg, south africa about aliens who are, for the past 20 years, stranded on earth and segregated from the human population in a slum as their massive ship hovers motionless above the city is a powerful beginning for a story of the conflicts of an us v. them, culture v. culture commentary on how we live in the early 21st century.

which blomkamp achieves for two-thirds of the run time. the movie begins as a documentary about what went wrong when a private security company hired by the south african government to manage the alien ghetto, and styled i suppose on blackwater, mnu tries to allay the fears of the human population of the aliens themselves and attempts to relocate the aliens, derogatorily called prawns because of how the insect-like creatures look. we are introduced to mnu bureaucrat wikus van de merwe, played by sharlto copley, an awkward and goofy employee who has just been promoted by his boss and father-in-law to lead the relocation.

the relocation is horrible with lots of bodies and bullets sprayed. still in the faux-documentary style of following wikus as he struggles to lead in his newly-appointed role he discovers that the aliens are not simply just the violent, brutish creatures everyone believes. something else is afoot. that's when we are introduced to christopher johnson, the rather blandly named alien, and his son. and that's when blomkamp abandons the documentary style and moves into a straight action film.

nothing wrong with action films, especially for the summer, but to have such a brilliant set-up devolve in the final third of the movie is a huge let-down. still, the casting of copley as almost unlikable and the creation of the aliens as pretty damn repugnant in both behavior and appearance is a fresh approach to the usual mystical appliances of making a feature about aliens among us. it is hard to like these characters, they are much like people we might even know, and it is brilliant of blomkamp to make them rather unlikable.

also the fx is as i said at the beginning astonishing. the alien ship is huge, brown, dirty, and looks like a freighter rather than a gleaming machine like in too many sci-fi flicks. the main population of the aliens are rough-hewn deckhands and behave just like the humans around them, ignorant, greedy and violent even with such high technology, much like us. what is also maddening is the failure of wikus to be a curious intellect. when he travels into the alien ghetto he doesn't wonder why or how the alien ship manages to float above the city, why they are on earth, what was their mission and so forth. perhaps these issues had already been covered years before, to no one's satisfaction. i am left to guess since it seems all we humans are curious about is the aliens' weapons and how they work.

i'll leave that up to the viewers to discover. i'd rather not give away more of the plot. this movie can be described as the thinking person's action film. but i'd rather not. instead, it is the arthouse flick that could be. blomkamp is a talented filmmaker and as i checked at a very young one at that. this film is doing rather well at the box office. i hope that gives him enough cache for another film and see what he can really do other than loud explosions.


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