Review: “District 9”

August 14, 2009 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

What do you get when you toss in trigger-happy mercenary soldiers, lowly government office workers, and marooned aliens?  Why, Halo Disctrict 9, the first wide-release feature film from South African director Neill Blomkamp and  producer Peter Jackson.

Somewhat born from the ashes that was Universal Pictures’ Halo film project (now possibly resurrected), District 9 is the feature-length film of Blomkamp’s short Alive in JoburgD9 follows a momentous event in human history: first contact with extra-terrestrial life, which happens to occur over Johannesburg in South Africa.  Problem is, these aliens, called ‘prawns’ due to their looks, are stuck on Earth.  The prawns and the humans must now learn to co-exist on this planet.  If this sounds like the plot to Alien Nation, it isn’t.  Due to the prawns’ starkly different physiology and culture, and human nature’s tendency to fear anything it doesn’t understand, the South African government decides to separate the two, creating District 9, basically a ghetto, for the aliens.  When the nearby human citizens start to feel threatened by the close proximity of D9, the government employs Multi-National United (MNU), a megacorporation, to carry out the relocation of the prawns to the newly built District 10.

One of the top desk jockeys promoted to execute the evictions is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), an everyman office worker who is on-hand in D9 to ensure the evictions are carried out properly.  Things go wrong when he becomes exposed to some never-before-seen alien technology and must run for his life while trying to solve the mysteries surround District 9.  What follows is a sci-fi movie packed with action, great CG effects, and a compelling story.

The film is shot in a pseudo-documentary style, with a camera crew following Wikus during the opening 20 minutes or so.  In some scenes, the camera perspective will change from the usual handheld to the perspective of a security camera.  This technique serves the story well; it really puts the audience right in the middle of things.  The computer-generated imagery was also well-done.  Unlike last week’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, where the CG really stood out in parts (in a bad way), the effects in D9 felt like they were part of the story’s world.  The massive alien ship hovering over Johannesburg really looked and felt like it was there, the aliens wandering the slums of D9 looked real, and the crazy weaponry they wield also made me feel like I was watching a documentary.

District 9‘s story also helps draw you in.  It’s a social commentary on segregation and immigration wrapped up in a tale of adventure and corporate intrigue with a sprinkle of action-movie car chases and explosions.  This is quite possibly the ‘smartest’ movie of the summer; something that entertains as well as questions and informs.

However, it’s not without its problems.  While the cinema verite style helps the film overall, it does leave some questions.  For example, there’s a camera crew following the characters for the first 20 or so minutes.  It’s obvious because Wikus and others address the cameras and their crew directly.  Once that day is over, it becomes a regular narrative just told almost entirely in Steadicam fashion, much like an episode of Southland or Battlestar Galactica.  Who were these camera operators?  Why were they there?  What happened to them?  It would’ve been interested to see if the whole film could’ve been told from that perspective.

It also loses some of the social commentary once the action-movie cliches kick in.  Toward the end, it becomes a bit of a buddy-movie, with Wikus teaming up with one of the aliens, Christopher, who claims to be able to help Wikus if he can only help the aliens.  However, this doesn’t ruin the picture, or turn it into some kind of Jerry Bruckheimer film (not that I have anything against Bruckheimer pictures), as it does give the film some really good scenes toward the end.

Also, some of the characters could’ve been a little more fleshed out.  I totally bought into Wikus plight and was with him during his journey, but everyone else felt like a stereotype.  There’s the psychotic mercenary hired to track down Wikus, the evil corporate executives, the scared wife.  If Blomkamp wanted the film to return to a ‘traditional narrative’, at least try and give us some backstory to some of these supporting characters.

It’s hard to say whether District 9 will be considered a classic one day.  It does have all the elements: a smart story, lessons to be learned, great visual and special effects, and an underdog hero.  The things that get in the way, mainly the direction of the story during the second act, keep it from being among the greatest.  Still, it’s a memorable film that will please audiences and will probably open up discussions on modern society’s social woes.

9/10

(images from Yahoo!)

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