So this little movie called DISTRICT 9 opens today, and Capone says it's the summer's best!!!
Published at: Aug. 14, 2009, 8:14 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I've seen this film twice now, under fairly similar circumstances in two different cities, and I'm really dying to see this very different take on the "alien invasion" style of film plays to a paying audience that really has no idea just what kind of film DISTRICT 9 transforms into before your very eyes. I'm tempted to keep this review extremely short. I've said this before about other films, but in the case of this one, I think it's crucial that you know as little going in as possible. What you have seen on the film's various websites and different commercials and trailers is certainly a part of what DISTRICT 9 is about, but the marketing people for this film have been almost incomprehensibly wise about not showing too much. And what they have shown you isn't even a fraction of the most interesting elements of this seriously well-made science fiction epic that combines politics, social commentary, aliens, extreme cartoony violence, and one of the best classic Hitchcock-ian, wrong-man-pursued plots in recent memory.
At the very least, I can talk about the setup, which has been fairly well documented. This is an alternate version of Earth. The events of DISTRICT 9 do not take place in the future; they take place here and now... just a different version of here and now. Set in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, the film begins as a documentary about an enormous alien spacecraft comes to Earth and hovers right over the city and does absolutely nothing. Humans being humans, we decide to got cut our way into the craft, and what we find is about a million worker bee aliens with no leadership and a great deal of illness running through their ranks. The South Africans transport the sick and malnourished creatures to the surface, and take care of them like good Samaritans should. Humans put the aliens in makeshift camps in South Africa's District 9, as the rest of the world tried to figure out what to do with all of these aliens. This was nearly 20 years ago.
What's kind of brilliant about South African director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp's feature debut is just how well thought out this universe is and how scarily parallel it is to both his country's system of apartheid and to human nature in general. The aliens are grotesque-looking, insect- or shellfish-like beings (I know none of that makes sense, but it will when you see it), but since they've been around for a couple decades, no one reacts to their disgusting looks at all. There are also plenty of people who understand their language and the aliens seem to understand ours. We don't speak each other's dialects, but there's an understanding. I also like that no two aliens look exactly alike. Some have started wearing a few bits of clothing, or painted things on their bodies. They have slightly different shapes and sizes. So often in movies involving aliens, all of the aliens look alike. Humans don't all look alike, so why should aliens?
But getting down to the nitty-gritty, these aliens (who are never given a name beyond the derogatory term "prawns") are an oppressed people, and, as most oppressed people do, they get angry and begin to fight back. A black-market trade is firmly established, crime is rampant, and when it becomes clear that the aliens are never going to leave, the South African government decides to instigate a policy of forced relocation to somewhere much further away from Johannesburg city limits to what are essentially concentration camps. Enter Wikus van der Merwe (played by South African filmmaker and infrequent actor Sharlto Copley), a field operative for Multi-National United (MNU), who has been put in charge of making sure all of the aliens are given notice as their relocation with as little violence as possible (it doesn't help that he has a military escort). Wikus is an uber-bureaucratic nerd who has been around these creatures most of his life, and seems to have a combination of empathy and contempt for the prawns. While going house to house in District 9, Wikus discovers a cache of alien weapons (not that uncommon in this area), including one device that changes his life forever and makes him the most wanted man in all of South Africa and possibly the world.
In a strange but ultimately wise decision, director Blomkamp decides to go back and forth between a documentary style and more traditional filmmaking. There's a real naturalistic feel to the entire scenario that makes the experience watching DISTRICT 9 seem just that much more nerve wracking. The way the giant alien craft hovers in the distance of many outdoor shots, the way scientists attempt to weaponize the aliens and their technology (the weapons are devised only work when they detect alien DNA using them), and even just the way the computer-generated aliens seamlessly interact with the human characters. You'll forget in about 15 minutes that you're watching creatures that aren't real.
And then there's the final third of DISTRICT 9, which is essentially a non-stop war among the aliens, the MNU military agents and the Nigerian underworld, which runs the black market in the alien district. Oh, the blood does flow spectacularly. In these scenes, Blomkamp shows you his balls, just pulls them out and waves them in your face, and dares you not to be impressed with their steely nature. He has a terrific sense of staging action while making sure things stay clear to the audience. I never lost track of where all the players were in the geography of District 9. It's difficult not to be impressed with the fluid nature of the battle scenes, all shot with handheld cameras that may make those of you unlucky enough to sit in the first couple of rows a little dizzy.
For me, it was the second viewing of DISTRICT 9 that revealed some nice details in the background. Very few of the effects shots have a spotlight thrown on them. They are meant to blend in with reality and not call attention to themselves by being too big and/or loud. I also love that the film doesn't forget to be fun. Before his life gets completely turned around, Wikus is the film's primary source of comic relief. And Blomkamp doesn't forget to include a slew of "Oh shit!" and "Hell yes!" moments. Above all other things, DISTRICT 9 is endlessly entertaining. In some ways, Wikus' arc reminds me of the absolute hell that characters in producer Peter Jackson's BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD go through, complete with hardcore, brutal, gore-infused violence that will probably make you giggle with excitement more than repulse you.
Per usual, I've said too much, but don't worry there's still so much to discover in the world of DISTRICT 9. I don't even know why you're reading this; you know you're going to see this three or four times in theaters and then go buy the DVD the day it comes. Yes, folks, it's that good. And I think without anticipating it, I've stumbled upon my favorite movie of the summer of 2009. I love when that happens.
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