Sunday, August 16, 2009
Nearly every review of District 9 you will read will peg South African director Neill Blomkamp as someone to watch, and I can do nothing but add my own assent to the mound of praise. With a budget of $30 million, the former animator has crafted with his first feature (itself adapted from his own short film Alive in Joburg) the most alluring and fleshed-out blockbuster of the summer. Yet he also clearly displays his inexperience, and in the process of stretching out a six-minute short to nearly two hours has relied just a bit too much on flash.
A clear allegory for his country's past apartheid policies, District 9 takes a novel approach: what if aliens made contact with us were completely superior biologically and technologically, yet were so weak when they arrived that we managed to gain the upper hand? 20 years ago, a massive mothership appeared not over New York or Paris, but Johannesburg. After 3 months of no activity or contact, humans finally cut their way into the craft to find a million crustacean-like beings starving to death and aimless without any leadership. With camera crews documenting the discovery, the South African government tried to look like heroes and set them up in shelters with food. As confusion and tension mounted, fences sprung up around this camp, then militarized barriers.
With the ship disabled and a desire to utilize alien weaponry (it's all coded to only fire for the aliens), the government lets the aliens wallow in slums as they research a way to combine human and "prawn" DNA to give them the ultimate technological superiority. They contract their military work to Multi-National United, a private mercenary company, who are in the process of relocating the aliens to a smaller concentration camp at the start of the film as public outrage with co-existence builds to a fever pitch. Wikus (pronounced "Vickus") van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an unassuming office worker at MNU, is promoted to lead the expedition to evict the residents of District 9, likely because his father-in-law runs the corporation.
The "prawns" are all rendered on computers, yet they look flawless on the tight budget. But more impressive, to me at least, is the world Blomkamp creates around these CG creatures. Using the slums that still exist in Johannesburg, Blomkamp fills the screen with the horrors of extreme poverty, which feel not an iota less powerful for happening to a bunch of overgrown shrimp. Nigerian warlords establish a dominance within the alien camp, meting out cat food (which the prawns love) in exchange for weapons and cash, giving them a clever connection to MNU and the government. MNU agents casually beat and even execute prawns in their eviction duties, while those who duck punishments comb the littered streets for anything to eat.
Now, I don't want to spoil the plot, but of course things go wrong. Wikus is infected with a strange fluid that starts having some deliciously gross side-effects, and he rebels when his father-in-law agrees to have him cut up for analysis. Banding together with an alien who has a plan to reactivate the mothership and fix Wikus' ailment, the desk jockey slowly uncovers MNU's true methods of operation as his changing body gives him several noticeable enhancements. The more we see the more we realize that Blomkamp isn't just using a docudrama feel for the direction: he's making a straight-faced mockumentary about Wikus' exploits.
That style, though, is inconsistent. The documentary footage reveals that the film within a film is being shot in retrospect, yet we see real-time events occurring that are not recovered video files. These scenes are shot with a more traditional approach, and while the switch between the two styles is never jarring, it betrays how broadly Blomkamp spackled in the cracks of his stretched narrative. Nevertheless, Blomkamp has a clear sense of action and placement, and his hand-held footage isn't distracting in any way. I don't mean he makes the shakiness OK because he uses it artistically like, say, Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow in her latest opus; it really isn't an issue at all.
That impressive skill makes the third act, which I'm sure most people will love the most, so upsetting. After building up a fully-realized world with a great lead and thought-provoking themes turns into a film about "stuff getting blowed up." And by stuff I mean heads. Lots and lots of heads. I don't want to tell people how to live their lives, but if you're near alien weaponry and you have a head, I'm just saying that it's not the safest idea in the world. The action of the first two-thirds of the film is gritty and disturbing, a potent cocktail of Cronenberg-esque body horror and manufactured newsreels of atrocities; this act, though, is all about over-the-top spectacle. That might not have been so bad, but consider that the aliens play almost no role whatsoever in the final 30 minutes. It's all Wikus against the world. For a film built upon an apartheid metaphor, the sudden turn into an alien revenge fantasy takes the proceedings too far from their roots.
Having said that, I would be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy almost every second of the film. Perhaps I was riding off the energy of my enthusiastic audience, who groaned and laughed and hollered with each exploded head, or maybe it was my innate American fascism or whatever it is I, as a liberal, am supposed to feel guilty about. I can't forgive the ending, though; it's just terrible, and it shamelessly sets up either an "arty" unresolved end or a clear opening for a sequel, which looks surprisingly plausible considering box office receipts (I was bowled over to sit in a completely packed house in a mid-afternoon Sunday screening).
So, for a first feature-length film from a promising director, based on a short film that doesn't expand the way it needs to, it's damn fine entertainment. Those who do their research might be a little suspicious to see that Copley produced the original short, but he commands the screen as the initially mousy Wikus and is no less convincing when he must turn into a sort of action hero past the halfway mark. I was also pleased to see that Blomkamp wrote the character of Christopher, the alien, as completely human in his actions without insisting upon the "we ain't so different after all" vibe that could have so easily slipped into the proceedings. In terms of pure enjoyability, District 9 ranks as perhaps the finest blockbuster of the summer, eclipsing even Star Trek. However, and I'm not want to tell people what a film "should have been," but I'm disappointed that a gripping and inventive sci-fi political thriller stooped to a glorified massacre at the expense of adequately resolving its themes and narrative. Then why I am so eager to see it again?