Tuesday, August 18, 2009

District 9 Provokes Horror, Thought

The first half of District 9 may be the best, most thought-provoking piece of film-making released this year. The second half is more conventional, but still light-years beyond much of what passes for summer fare in this day and age (although I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed the movies that I’ve seen this summer).

The basic premise is simple enough – twenty years ago, a gigantic spaceship “ran out of gas” above Johannesburg, and eventually the survivors were transported down to the surface, in what at the time seemed like (and probably was) a humanitarian gesture. The aliens look a little bit like an upright lobster, and they communicate with an odd-sounding clicking language. Their human hosts quickly tired of their presence, invented a derogatory term for them (“prawns”), made fun of their dietary habits (for some reason, they absolutely adore cat food) and generally did everything they could to ensure that the aliens were confined to District 9, just outside of the city.

Fast forward to the present day, when the distaste for the aliens has reached the point that a plan has been developed to transfer them to District 10, even further away from the city, to put some additional space between them and the human residents of Johannesburg. The move, which is “voluntary” in name but in fact nothing of the sort, is akin to moving the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto to a concentration camp. There is a reason that the movie is set in Johannesburg (other than the simplest one, the fact that the film-makers are South African) – the parallels to apartheid are obvious, and make even more affecting the easy cruelty with which all of the residents of the city treat the aliens.

In charge of this horrifying enterprise is one Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat will little sense and even less sensitivity for the job he has just been handed. It quickly becomes apparent that Wikus has no empathy for the aliens and the squalor in which they live (where their few neighbors include dangerous and ruthless Nigerian gangs), and the film’s most horrifying moment comes when Wikus stumbles across a “house” where alien eggs are being cultivated, and with glee on his face and in his voice, sets the house on fire while comparing the sound the eggs make to that of popcorn popping.

Up to this point, the story has been told in part-documentary fashion, with key figures from Wikus’ life (wife, parents, father-in-law, co-workers) telling his story. All along you know that something is going to happen to him, and eventually it does, when he accidentally sprays himself in the face with an alien liquid and begins a slow, painful transition to becoming a “prawn” himself. It is at that point that the movie becomes more of a standard action picture, as Wikus slowly comes to grips with his fate and eventually teams with one of the aliens and his son to retrieve the liquid, which as it turns out is fuel to allow this particular alien (“Christopher Johnson”) to return to the mother ship and get it running again. Shoot-outs and action scenes commence, all of which are well done (the baddest of the bad guys all get what’s coming to them), but none of which quite approaches the brilliance (or the bleakness) of the beginning.

But taken as a whole, the movie is a terrific debut effort for director Neill Blomkamp, and a triumph for Sharlto Copley, the actor who portrays Wikus. A science-fiction action picture that gets you thinking – can one really ask for more than that?

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