Friday, August 21, 2009

District 9: An enthusiastic 10

District 9 (2009) • View trailer for District 9
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.21.09
Buy DVD: District 9• Buy Blu-Ray: District 9 [Blu-ray]

This one has it all.

Part scathing social commentary, part eye-popping speculative fiction, part kick-ass action flick, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a ferociously engaging film: the sort of impressively original work that shapes popular entertainment for years to come.
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, left), assigned to serve "eviction
notices" to the unappealing aliens that have been crammed into a slum for 20
years, naively believes that the "virtue" of his task will be enough to ensure
his safety while within the fenced compound known as District 9.

Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch also make excellent use of the "found footage" style of filmmaking that has become so common these days; this drama unfolds as a blend of faux documentary, on-the-street guerrilla footage and  when necessary  "traditional" camerawork that allows us access to scenes that couldn't be obtained any other way.

Point-of-view purists may kick up a fuss, but who cares? Blomkamp and editor Julian Clarke assemble all the pieces brilliantly: You'll be hooked from the very first scenes.

It's important to note that some genuine thought and planning went into this manner of storytelling; it's not just the usual irritating excuse for jiggly camerawork that mars most recent flicks taking this approach. Blomkamp puts us right into this pell-mell saga, and gives it a sense of immediacy that makes District 9 the genius cinematic equivalent of what Orson Welles did so cleverly with radio, back when he frightened the hell out of listeners with his 1938 adaptation of War of the Worlds.

More to the point, this sucker moves.

Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell waste no time in setting the stage, beginning their tale with a series of on-camera interviews apparently being conducted after the fact: This both establishes the necessary back-story, while suggesting that these events  whatever they were  went very badly.

The time is an unspecified point in our near future, the setting Johannesburg, where for 20 years the city's residents have lived uneasily alongside a rather unusual refugee camp. Two decades earlier, a huge extra-terrestrial "mother ship" came to rest above Johannesburg and then ... did nothing. With the world's eyes on this South African metropolis, local forces finally broke into the vessel and discovered countless malnourished aliens, all apparently too helpless to do anything.

Once transferred to District 9, a hastily constructed treatment facility just outside the city, the aliens  pejoratively dubbed "prawns," for the way they resembled upright, human-sized crustaceans  recovered and became a serious burden on local resources. Worse still, many of them turned dangerous; although some aliens and humans learned each other's language, for the most part both sides had no love for the other.

District 9 became a deplorable and dangerous slum, its inhabitants badly mistreated by both the "official" human presence and the black-market operations  run by Nigerians, which can't help raising a smile  that moved in to further exploit them.

The entire mess has contracted out to Multi-National United, a privately run corporation that couldn't care less about the aliens' welfare. MNU is interested only in the powerful weaponry recovered from the mother ship, and obtained by force from the more desperate or vicious inhabitants of District 9.

Sadly for MNU, though, these weapons don't work in human hands; they're bio-engineered to function only when handled by the aliens themselves. MNU's visions of obscene profits, via supplying super-weapons to Earth's warring hot spots, remain unfulfilled.

All this emerges in just a few deft minutes of reportage, at which point we meet Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an MNU office wonk put in charge of a controversial plan to relocate the aliens even further from the city, to minimize their contact with Johannesburg residents. The new "facility," dubbed District 10, looks every inch like a concentration camp.

Wikus, delighted beyond words to be away from his desk  and on camera, as he accepts and enthusiastically embraces this responsibility  heads the team sent into District 9 to serve "eviction notices" to each of the shanty-dwelling aliens.

Although Blomkamp stages these cynically farcical encounters for comedy, our laughter dies quickly, and not just because Wikus attacks his new job so seriously.

We must remember that this film comes from a South African artist, who fully understands the heinously brutal manner in which underclasses can be treated without a second thought. The coldly casual ways in which Wikus and his associates handle these "evictions"  and the blatantly ironic lies told to placate the aliens  become unsettling, and then quite frightening.

Even more so, when something goes wrong.

Suddenly, Wikus finds himself a "person of interest" to the very corporation that he so naively believed always had his welfare at heart ... and it becomes clear that MNU's corporate heads have no reservations about treating human beings as badly as aliens.

What follows isn't optimistic, hands-together, Star Trek-style sci-fi. Blomkamp clearly doesn't believe in the milk of human kindness; he obviously knows better, having seen far too much in his own real world.

Money and greed rule everything.

Copley, a South African TV businessman with absolutely no acting experience, is an amazing find; his performance is spot-on. While Blomkamp and his production crew create a fully credible environment for their story, Copley unerringly sells the drama.

In his early scenes, he makes Wikus an ignorant corporate clown: the sort of mid-level toadie who can't believe his "good fortune" to have been selected for so visible a role. To his peril, Wikus lacks the savvy to understand that, should anything go awry, his head would be first on the chopping block.

Wikus soon achieves enlightenment, and in a hurry; Copley runs this poor slob through a bruising range of emotions  injured pride, suspicion, panic, betrayal, resignation, utter terror and finally grim determination  all of which are delivered persuasively. It's a brilliant performance, in great part because he takes us on a similar roller coaster.

We don't even like Wikus at first blush; the man's clearly an incompetent idiot who gives lip-service to the need for compassion when "handling" aliens, but when embarrassed (on camera) is all too prone to the same casual cruelty typified by Koobus (David James), the bloodthirsty chief enforcer in charge of MNU's military unit. (Echoes of Blackwater thugs are impossible to ignore.)

But as these events spiral out of control, and Wikus is confronted by the depth of human depravity, Copley orchestrates a thoroughly convincing transformation in his character. Little by little, the man smartens up and matures into somebody we can feel sorry for ... and, later, somebody on whom we can pin our faint hopes.

The aliens are impressively icky and otherworldly, brought to life by effects supervisor Joe Dunckley and the WETA team that also worked with Lord of the Rings impresario Peter Jackson (who co-produced and chaperoned District 9, and introduced it to a wildly enthusiastic crowd at San Diego's Comic-Con).

They're not the slightest bit appealing or cute, being a nasty blend of crustacean and insect exo-skeleton, with sinewy, delicate joints connecting hard-shell parts that constantly secrete some sort of sticky resin.

Their movements are an unsettling blend of scuttling and hopping, and they visually trigger every ancient flight mechanism buried in our human brains.

"They're meant," Dunckley explains, in the press notes, "to be entirely disgusting."

They are.

Despite this  and despite the fact that these creatures are strong enough to rip limbs from human beings, and frequently do so as we watch  we can't help pitying them. Blomkamp understands how to make them sympathetic in all their horrific glory; these are brutalized, badly exploited creatures. To what degree have 20 years of slum living made them this way?

Blomkamp never calls undue attention to the rest of his film's gee-whiz effects: the mother ship that's simply part of the sky above this Johannesburg shantytown, or the weird-looking weapons begrimed by the dirt-worn shabbiness that comes from having been tossed about for two decades. All these elements, along with the grim District 9 setting, are simply part of the story's environment; we accept everything because it's all so casually, credibly authentic.

The process by which Blomkamp made this film is almost as interesting as the movie itself. Under Jackson's tutelage, Blomkamp was hand-picked to direct a big-screen adaptation of the massively popular computer game Halo. Then, at the last minute, the studio backers balked at entrusting so much money to unknown talent; that left Jackson and Blomkamp with all sorts of pre-production work completed, and nothing to use it on.

Remembering a low-budget short called Alive in Jo'burg, which he had shot a few years earlier — and which similarly exploited the xenophobia displayed by Johannesburg residents suddenly confronted with intergalactic refugees on their doorstep  Blomkamp and Tatchell fleshed this concept into a feature-length production.

The rest, as they say, is career-changing history ... most visibly for Blomkamp and Copley, but also for everybody else associated with this impressive work.

No matter how much moronic tripe such as Transformers has sullied the genre, the summer of 2009 will be long remembered for not just one, but two examples of science-fiction at its most thoughtful and relevant: first Moon, and now District 9.

It also would be nice to believe that the lessons in Blomkamp's film might be taken to heart.

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