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Saturday, September 12

I saw 'District 9' and was like "meh..."

Neill Blomkamp's feature film District 9, an expansion of his 2005 short Alive in Joburg, has been much anticipated for some time by sci-fi fans. The 29 year old Blomkamp has become a protege of sorts to Lord of the Rings producer/director Peter Jackson, with the two of them set to collaborate on Halo, a long in development - and currently in limbo - adaptation of a popular video game. When the Halo production collapsed, Jackson helped Blomkamp move ahead with District 9. The finished film was well received by film critics, and enthusiastically embraced by the fans who had been looking forward to it.

In the world the film depicts, it has been 20 years since a massive alien spacecraft stalled in the sky above Johannesburg in South Africa. The surviving aliens on board - an insectoid species who lost their commanding class through circumstances the film is vague on, leaving only the less advanced drone class - have been relocated to the district of the title, a sprawling shanty town where over time these interstellar visitors have been reduced to the status of third world refugees.

The basic setup is not unlike that of Alien Nation (1988, Graham Baker), but where the earlier film was pretty much a formulaic buddy cop film given an alien twist, District 9 presents an allegory for apartheid, problematically set in the same area where apartheid occurred. I say problematically because District 9 unfolds in documentary style, striving to present a realistic view of this world while conveniently ignoring the notion that international governments and institutions would be likely to become involved in the welfare of the "prawns" - as they have come to be known - rather than leaving their management to a callous combination of big business, a corrupt local government, and the military.

There is no indication in the film that anyone is aware of the irony of history repeating, nor that there is anyone on the planet who has responded to the aliens with anything other than contempt, disgust, or - at best - a desire to exploit them. The only people in the film shown to have any sort of relationship with the aliens are Nigerian crime gangs, who sell the aliens tinned cat food (a favourite food of theirs, recalling the aliens getting drunk on sour milk in Alien Nation) in exchange for highly advanced weaponry which cannot be operated by humans, being coded to only respond to the aliens' genetic imprint.

Evil corporation MNU has spent twenty years studying these weapons and slicing up aliens in a laboratory that looks like an abattoir, seemingly without actually learning anything about them. With unease growing in the nearby human population, the decision is made to relocate the aliens to District 10, a more isolated encampment. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the inept executive put in charge of the relocation. He is the one character in the film who is given any development. A lot of crazy things happen to him, but his progression is a simple one from racist idiot to simply idiot, with one or two unlikely detours into action man territory. Nearly all the other human characters in the film are xenophobic arseholes with no shades of grey whatsoever, which if nothing else is consistent with the uncharitable view of humanity as a whole.

The film uses the documentary form cleverly to convey a great deal of information efficiently, but then occasionally stoops to insulting the audience - the use of subtitles when a character is speaking heavily accented but still fairly intelligible English is a pet hate of mine. Elsewhere, the viewer is required to use imagination to breach vast gaps in logic - the MacGuffin which drives much of the action is a canister of fluid which seems to be either fuel or a power source but is then revealed to have DNA altering properties if a person is exposed to it, and a thwarted escape attempt in a long buried drop ship is rendered meaningless when, five minutes later, the drop ship is lifted up by a tractor beam from the mothership, activated by remote control from on board the drop ship.

It ended up feeling to me like a lot of really "cool" shots or moments linked together with ropey logic and contrivance: at one point Wikus, in a tight spot with a Nigerian crime lord, conveniently finds a powerful weapon lying on the ground within his reach. It has to be said that what Blomkamp has achieved technically with his 30 million dollar budget shows up how ridiculous it is to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a Transformers film. The aliens are never less than completely convincing, whether in a wide shot of dozens of them, or an expressive single close up of one of their faces, and Weta Digital's photorealistic spacecraft is always shown with loose hand held camerawork so we can admire how rock steady motion tracking software has become. Clinton Shorter's score throws Wailing Ethnic Woman (TM) at us when we're supposed to feel sad, but the drama the film presents is not compelling enough to smooth over the gaps in logic, let alone earn our tears.

1 comment:

Vancetastic said...

Felt the way you did. My biggest complaints:

1) Shifting back and forth between faux documentary and fiction format, without reason and whenever they felt like it. Seriously distracting.

2) Speaking of Michael Bay, there was some seriously melodramatic shit in this movie. How about Wikus in the "robot suit" yelling "Is that all you got? Is that all you got?" while the super-serious-tragic African tribal music -- you know, the kind with the lone singer letting loose with the most forlorn sounds you've ever heard -- playing in the background?

3) Wikus is not a sympathetic character in the least. Oops.