Monday, August 24, 2009

Film Review #209: District 9
Director: Neill Blonkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copely, Vanessa Haywood, CGI

Midway through this story set in South Africa’s Johannesburg, the ingratiating corporate gopher charged with being the public face of a massive forced removal himself takes refuge within the sprawling, sordid shanty-town. Things have gone terribly wrong. Back at the shack of one Christopher Johnson, whom he’d tried to evict earlier, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) notices his host’s young son chattering and peering at him. Already distraught, Wikus demands, “What’s he doing?”

“He likes you,” says Christopher.

“We are alike,” says the little one, fascinated. “We’re the same.”

“We are not the same!” shrieks Wikus, leaping to his feet.

Wikus is still mostly right in this horrified declaration. Christopher and his son (who are CGI-conjured instead of played by actors) are aliens, two among the growing thousands who’ve been corralled for 28 years – since their apparently disabled mothership stalled above the city where it still hangs mid-sky – in an inner-city camp, ringed by East Berlin-like guard towers, gates, warning signs, razor wire and Multi National United’s prowling, brutal, trigger-happy private security forces. The South Africans call the aliens “prawns,” an epithet descriptive of their appearance, and their language is a series of clicks, which Wikus understands but are subtitled for the audience.

Tensions and incidents of violence have risen during human and alien encounters, and the TV live-eye reports and interviews that provide much of the narrative thread and documentary-like ambiance include a pointed, bizarre parade of black South Africans voicing fearful hostility toward the aliens, resentment over the resources they consume, and vigorous support of an even greater Apartheid toward them. In their very public display of removing the aliens to a remote site with even fewer amenities than District 9 offers, MNU has carefully kept out of view their interest in accessing the aliens’ weapons, which are coded to work only via contact with alien biology, and the Mengele-like medical experiments. So smarmy to start with that you want to slap him, Wikus actually seems to believe MNU’s public relations line and is crudely racist – if that would be the term – in his officious condescension toward the aliens. Imagine his surprise when a chance encounter with a canister of alien fluid – its versatile powers will also fuel that mother-ship if Christopher can get back up there – first makes Wikus violently ill and then causes an alien hand and arm to sprout, replacing his own, just the beginning of his transformation.

To what lengths must we go to feel another’s pain and know we are alike? Only when “infected” with an alien life-form does Wikus become, well, fully human. Enduringly, we all want to go home. Each stranded in the world of the other, Wikus and Christopher share this yearning and its dilemmas and, from across a great chasm, come to be allies and even brothers. Quickly arriving at Central New York multiplexes after wide release on August 14th, District 9 is an exhilarating action film whose shooting, editing and narrative are way better crafted and more thoughtful than you’d ever expect. As executive producer, hit mogul Peter Jackson “presents” this first-time feature from South African director Neill Blomkamp. In the largely South African cast, Copely delivers a stunning, high energy performance as the MNU bureaucrat who actually does love his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) and has more gumption than anybody previously imagined. One by one, his father-in-law (MNU’s CEO), the mercenary chief and the gangster running District 9’s black market all get more than they bargained for out of this frightened, unhip little guy they were planning to swat aside.

District 9 also owes a great deal to other sci-fi movies. Part of the pleasure of watching it involves realizing that a certain vocabulary has evolved at this point that comments on more than the action at hand (satisfying as that may be). From Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), for example, we see the blue holographic computer functions that hover in mid-air (predicting your own smart phone’s finger-operated apps screen). The Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003) provided familiarity with the notion that new knowledge and abilities could be “plugged in” instead of acquired through laborious, old-fashioned step-by-step learning (see the part where Wikus, inside what we might best call an alien HumVee, finds himself understanding its operation and channeling Ellen Ripley).

In fact, District 9 especially owes a great deal to the Alien quartet (‘79, ‘86, ‘92 and ’97) – whether it’s memories of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) protecting the orphan Newt by using her space-age fork-lift to battle the alien mother in the second installment, Ripley’s chest bursting open as she dives into the flames in the third, or the cloned Ripley – now part-alien herself and discovering botched versions of earlier attempts to clone her stored in vats of formaldehyde – heading back to Earth, perhaps not with the same creature-loyalty. And whether it’s the many zombie films, New Line Cinema’s Blade trilogy with Wesley Snipes (variously directed, 1998, 2002 and 2004), or the progression of Ripley’s transformation over almost two decades and four directors, there also has emerged the idea that mixing species is at least tinged with infection. Setting District 9 specifically in South Africa, including “news clips” of vociferously anti-alien black South Africans and Wikus’ reaction to Christopher’s offspring thinking they’re “alike” makes explicit something of a trend in which mixing species frankly stands in for an old ideology that views race-mixing with horror and justifies treating those who are different as “non-human.”

Done with such seeming nonchalance that it takes you a while to realize it, District 9 actually offers an alternative history for South Africa: there is no government visible in this film, no Mandela, no end of Apartheid. Instead, "all that" is replaced by the 1981 arrival of the alien mothership which unites South African blacks and whites alike in repressing those yet lower on the food chain. (Given the parts assigned to Nigerians in this story, you have to wonder what the inside-Africa stereiotype is there.) In fact, I think surfacing this satirically is part of this film’s brilliance, though not everyone agrees; District 9 dwells in a queasy, ambiguous zone and some reviewers have found it literally, offensively racist.

Anyway, definitely don’t wait for the DVD.

This review appears in the August 20, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular film column since 2006. “District 9” is playing in wide release.