Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9: Excellence in sci-fi mayhem.

Now, I had heard rumblings of the Peter Jackson/Neill Blomkamp partnership for a long time, given that originally they were apparently slated to work on the Halo motion picture. Rumor has it that despite such a Hollywood juggernaut like Jackson behind him, the studio funding that project balked at having the relatively unknown South African director at the helm of such a big project.

Luckily for us...the two worked on something else...and that's exactly what it is.

District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. A massive alien ship has hovered in the sky over the city for nearly 28 years when our story takes place. The film begins with an amazingly well-crafted series of documentary snippets, detailing the arrival, subsequent discovery of sick and distressed alien refugees aboard the ship, and the problems said life-forms have presented for the residents of the city. The aliens are bipedal, anthropomorphic, crustacean-like creatures, derisively referred to as prawns. Needless to say, this situation provides an enormous mirror for a look into the universality of our own prejudices, and the canvas here (South Africa of all places!) presents a particularly ironic setting for such a story. At any rate, after a tortured 20-some year history of inter-special riots and civil unrest, the aliens end up herded into a shantytown known as District 9, beneath their looming, motionless ship.

The events of this film are set in motion when the corporation contracted to run the camp, Multi National United, decides to relocate the aliens to another site far from the city. Of course, this corporation has a much more sinister motive for its involvement in the project, as it has long wanted to harvest the powerful weapon technology the aliens wield, the main technology hitch being that only the aliens themselves can use the weapons, since the operation of them depends on an interaction with the aliens' DNA. On the day of the forced relocation, a hapless bureaucrat named Wikers Van Der Merwe makes a discovery while raiding an alien home that changes everything.

The film simply tells a very complex story in a particularly brilliant way. We've seen a lot of this sort of low-tech, documentary-style filmmaking since it came into vogue with The Blair Witch Project, but I have to say that this represents a real high point in the use of this kind 0f exposition. We get a lot of information on this world in a very short amount of time, and once the dominoes are set up, everything begins to go to hell in a very compelling and emotionally charged way. The blend of this sort of info-dense storytelling coupled with the excellent (but not gratuitously shiny!) visual effects is really extraordinary. The aliens themselves are very convincing and the way such a far-fetched situation manages to be grounded in such politically and socially realistic circumstances just manages to suck the viewer in and make it very believable.

At the beating heart of this story is our hapless bureaucrat. You don't like Wikers very much when you first meet him. He's a pencil-pusher, a guy who only got where he is because his wife is the daughter of a high-level executive of MNU. But when things change, they change enormously, and without giving anything away, this guy goes through hell...and even amid moments of heroism, he manages to still act with cowardly flaws here and there. You really buy into this guy...if only because once everything goes wrong, he just wants to go back to his regular life and be with his wife again.

Can a single summer sci-fi film manage to be visually arresting, sport jaw-dropping action scenes, have a compelling emotional core AND manage to hold a mirror into our own occasionally dark human hearts? Yes. District 9 does this with a stunning mix of storytelling finesse and brute force. It's the kind of movie that made me love the artform in the first place.