Monday, September 28, 2009

A Frank Review of "District 9" (2009)

The Short Version? Slumdog Xenophile.
What Is It? Science Fiction.
Who Is In It? South Africans.
Should I See It? Yes.

A few decades past, a spaceship hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa until it was investigated by human forces via helicopter. Inside were found a malnourished slave race of aliens abandoned on our world. They were placed in "temporary" shelters on the ground, which became their squalid permanent shantytown home... until now. Tired of their poor living conditions and disregard for societal norms, the people of South African insisted their government relocate the aliens to a smaller and more remote housing area. Independent contractors were employed, and one racist bureaucrat would be the subject of a documentary on moving day-- until circumstances deviated from plan.

After plenty of good buzz, I caught District 9 on its opening weekend... six weeks ago. Why didn't I post a review until now? Ah, I've been busy, and I can't say as I felt all that strongly about the movie either way. Critics I respect like Devin Faraci at CHUD offered glowing words like "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century." Steven Lloyd Wilson at Pajiba said "One hopes that the implied and inevitable sequel can live up to the high bar set in District 9." I have to wonder if we saw the same film. Feraci also stated no less than Peter Jackson claimed "while many young directors make movies about the movies they've seen, Blomkamp has made a movie about his life." Besides not having much interest in Jackson past The Frighteners (you heard me right, precious) I have to call bullshit. If ever there was a movie from a director who has watched too many other people's movies and lived too little life, it's Neill Blomkamp with this feature.

I've never heard of Gregor Turley of Only Good Movies, but he does a damned fine job of listing the many flicks District 9 owes a royalty to. Alien Nation is the most obvious, but I can even see callbacks to E.T., never mind that Nation itself borrowed the extended xenophobia-as-racism metaphor from Planet of the Apes and a slew of moldy sci-fi tales. Cronenberg's The Fly is an enormous influence, and most of the first reel is devoted to Blair Witch Project phony documentary footage, until it gets in the way of the narrative and is dumped without warning. Virtually every story beat can be found lifted wholesale, with the best defense being that it's finessed in the manner of Tarantino. Because of this, Turley's bilious reaction, venting to the effect of "...having to endure another awful... movie like those schlockmeister Uwe Boll repeatedly churns out," is as misassigned as the previous accolades.

Let me tell you, some reservations aside, I enjoyed watching District 9 from beginning to end at the theater. It is a fun ride, and takes some chances, plus I always prefer my science fiction grounded in real world concerns. No, the problem comes in reflection, when I recall those reservations, and start tugging at the loose strings until the entire story begins to fray. The movie, despite a veneer of edge, is really a fairly safe crowd-pleaser. All the bad guys get their comeuppance, and the good guys work to find a better day. It is formula disguised as innovation, and whatever message it might have is decidedly mixed. You see, we have a human anti-hero whose selfish concerns motivate most of the action, and an alien protagonist who spends too much time reacting all too slowly. This alien is the only one portrayed with any dimension and intellect, and as a metaphor for black folk, he's "clean;" "neat;" one of the "good ones." The rest are all filthy thieves and lowlifes, unfit to keep company with one of "ours" (even if he is the 21st Century Watermelon Man.)

Setting aside the plot, the film is a technical marvel. The script works, the performances are pitch perfect, and the production design is absolutely convincing. I'm still amazed the aliens were entirely CGI, especially given the film's modest budget. For once, instead of rendering creatures in such intricate detail that your mind immediately recognizes they're fake, the computer artists crafted beings just realistic enough to be totally believable. The physics are incredible-- everything seems to have weight and occupy physical space. Instead of seeking bragging rights and validating outlandish expenditures, the CGI serves the story, and damned well better be served Oscars in the near future for the accomplishment.

So in summary, despite high falutin' projections, District 9 is neither paramount nor the nadir of anyone's science fiction filmgoing experience. It's just a solid first major effort from a director that wants to worm his way into our hearts and pocketbooks, with the aid of excellent effects work. I suppose Spielberg and Lucas should be proud.

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