Tuesday, October 6, 2009

District 9

I wasn't able to catch this film until about two weeks after it opened. By then the hype for this movie was through the roof. I heard only that it would not be what I expected, and that it was an allegory for apartheid. The initial teaser trailer reminded me of Independence Day, shot documentary style. What I ended up seeing was a smaller story than I expected, but one with much more heart and emotion than I had anticipated.

The title refers to a slum outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, in which aliens, known as prawns, have been forced to live for the twenty years since their space ship essentially "broke down" over the city. The movie opens with interviews and news footage shot like a documentary describing the arrival of the aliens, their capture and imprisonment, and some vague references to a man known as Wikus (played by first time actor Sharlto Copely), who evidently was involved in an event both unforgivable and tragic in the eyes of those being interviewed. These people were mostly employees of a global arms dealer also charged with relocating the prawns to a new site further from civilization, and even more like a concentration camp than their current conditions.

We catch up with Wikus as he is promoted to the person in charge of this relocation by his father-in-law. We follow him and other security offers/soldiers into the slums to serve the prawns eviction notices. Wikus is a man of seemingly no moral boundary or integrity, devoid of any noticeable good qualities. This makes what follows all the more interesting. As we watch his transformation, or in some cases the lack thereof, we sympathize with him to an extent, seeing the grueling intensity of what he is forced to endure, but even when he's essentially hand-fed opportunities to do the right thing and redeem his previous behavior, he surprises us at the extent of his inhumanity. Yet we still hurt for him on a visceral, human level. Given the location and the setup, the comparisons to apartheid in South Africa are both obvious and appropriate. The way the prawns are treated no doubt emulates race relations at different points in history throughout the world, and I think this movie does a good job of exploring what makes us human, in the core of our being.

On a technical note, the special effects were impressively blended with the real world environment, to a point that I really couldn't tell when they were using CGI or practical effects. The gun battles, especially featuring the grossly violent alien weaponry, are hugely entertaining and disgustingly satisfying. Although the film does "descend" into an explosive, guns blazing, action movie towards the end, it maintains its darkly satirical sense of humor throughout and never loses its emotional punch. The last scene is one of the most poignant I've seen this year, offering a glimmer of hope amid the madness, and a touching end to a truly impressive film from first time director Neill Blomkamp. One of the best science fiction films of the year (my heart belongs to Moon) and probably the best film this year that can qualify as "action," District 9 and its creator are on the lips of movie lovers and geeks everywhere. Here's hoping for District 10.