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Thursday 6 August 2009

District 9 (2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Star: Sharlto Copley

I have a theory that when the history books look back at the cinema of today from say ten or twenty years hence they're going to regard Peter Jackson as one of the most influential filmmakers in the world, and I'm not saying that just because he made my favourite film of all time, Bad Taste. Bad Taste was a low budget movie and it showed, it's far from his best work and I don't think anyone can mount a case to say otherwise, even a fan like me. Jackson made it as an amateur director with a bunch of mates on weekends using little except sheer talent and enthusiasm but it took him to the Cannes Film Festival and set him on a path to major success: success that has come as a writer, as a director, as a producer and as a businessman.

Where Jackson's success story really became a paradigm shift in cinematic history could well be the point in time when he persuaded New Line Cinema to let him make The Lord of the Rings. What thi meant was that a Hollywood studio let a Kiwi with one serious film under his belt loose on not one but three films that together constituted one of the most expensive and ambitious cinemtic projects of all time, and they let him make it in his home country of New Zealand.

We'll see if my theory pans out but I think this decision and the success of the films it brought into existence may well have influenced a whole slew of filmmakers around the world to ignore the call of Hollywood and create their films in their own countries. If they stay there, then they can create bodies of work influenced by their own cultures and become figureheads to their own national cinemas. In other words Jackson may have lit the sparks of the next great movements in world cinema.

Here's what could easily be a great example, a very South African story that still has world appeal. Jackson didn't write or direct here, but he produced the film and much of it came out of his Weta effects shop, which could well be the premier such facility in the world today. It feels to me like what Jackson would have done with Bad Taste, had he made it today. Opening a science fiction action movie with the words 'Peter Jackson Presents' and 'Wingnut Films' gave me a tingle and cemented the connection in mind. Also, like Bad Taste, it's an alien film that doesn't attempt to follow any existing template.

Back in 1982 the aliens arrived but they didn't do what we expected. They had one single huge mothership and it sat in the sky over Johannesburg and did precisely nothing. When there's no apparent attempt at contact or invasion or anything, we finally decided to head up there and break in, only to find what can only be described as a large population of refugees, suffering from malnutrition and in need of humanitarian assistance, if that isn't a redundant adjective to use in this context. So down they came to be housed in the slum known as District 9 which is far from a pleasant or safe place a couple of decades later.

We find out all about this through news footage, media analysis and street level commentary, and most tellingly, through interviews with representatives of MNU, or Multi-National United, the private company that runs District 9, and like all the best science fiction stories this is really about people, merely using aliens as a plot device. What has happened in this slum in the couple of decades since the aliens arrived sounds eerily familiar, especially because it's set in South Africa: racism, violence, riots, the usual. You know what to expect, just add seven foot alien monsters with no concept of ownership and who take to catfood like cats take to catnip. Soon the authorities put into place a new form of apartheid, making District 9 officially off limits to humans.

Naturally, the MNU would have us believe that this is for the aliens' own good. Just as naturally, these are aliens so you can throw into the mix every conspiracy theory you can think of. Sure, these aliens, colloquially known as prawns because of their appearance, are dangerous critters. After all they're even feet tall and can spring quite some distance, but they also have weapons, alien weapons that the MNU, as the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world, would give its back teeth to be able to use. Unfortunately they can't use any of it because it seems to need alien DNA to function and we don't have any of that.

Enter our unlikely hero, an MNU operative by the name of Wikus van der Merwe. He's tasked by the MNU chief (also his uncle) with moving the 1.8 million prawns out of District 9 and into a new location, an Alien Relocation Park 240 km away called Sanctuary Park. He leads in teams of heavily armed mercenaries to deliver eviction notices and we watch it all unfold through hand held documentary footage. It's around this point that we realise something has gone horribly wrong because the interviews start talking in the past tense about Wikus and what happened to him.

What happens is a whole bunch of things all at once. While serving his eviction notices, Wikus finds some sort of chemical lab, built and used by a prawn called Christopher Johnson, the first alien we meet who seems to have a purpose. He's been distilling a liquid and has finally managed to make enough of it, only for Wikus to stumble in and expose himself to it. Soon what seems to be a burn on his arm turns into a prawn's hand and the transformation threatens to continue. Of course MNU realise his value as a potential way to use the alien weaponry, so he ceases to be an agent and quickly becomes a medical experiment and eventually a fugitive, seeking refuge in the only place he can: District 9.

As a film, District 9 is a huge success but what it gives you back will depend on what you put into it. If you go looking for a scifi action flick, you're going to find it. Weta did itself proud here, making these aliens both memorable and thoroughly believable. Seven foot prawns with Predator style jaws, organs on the outside and very expressive eyes can't be the easiest things to animate but they look as real as the humans in this film. It's hard to even think of them as CGI and their alien language, subtitled for our benefit, is superbly constructed.

The alien tech looks realistically awesome which is a treat to my eyes, all beat up and salvaged like the tech in Star Wars not its prequels. Thankfully Blomkamp isn't interested in the slightest in the George Lucas disease that has to make everything shiny. These aliens have come up with great technology but they didn't stop it attracting dust and dirt and scratches. What Blomkamp and the effects techs do with this tech had the audience at the advance screening I attended applauding in their seats at a couple of points. To say there's gore and fights and explosions is to understate the case. We get all those with bells on.

If you're looking for a deeper story though, you'll find that too. The parallels between prawns and blacks in South Africa and between District 9 and apartheid (there was a real District 6) are pretty obvious but handled nicely. Less obviously, Wikus van der Merwe is really a metaphor for South Africa itself and actor Sharlto Copley, amazingly for his acting debut, provides us with a treat of a character. Copley gives a great performance and I'm fascinated to discover what he does next.

I won't detail quite how Wikus changes, but it isn't just about physically transforming into a prawn. He has attitudes and beliefs that are inherent in his character but which he has to question as he escapes his corporate mentality and experiences a wider world. There are points where these changes seem a little abrupt but I think that's appropriate for the situation he finds himself in. Put simply, he gets to ask himself about what being human means, about motivations and patience and urgency. He asks a lot of questions and hopefully his decision making skills improve as time passes.

We get to ask questions about humanity too. As a location, District 9 isn't just a slum, it's a culture and it's a fascinating one to watch. Beyond the aliens housed there, there's a sizeable population of Nigerians running catfood scams, dog fights (or their alien equivalents), even interspecies prostitution rackets. They also keep their own tribal beliefs and superstitions, such as eating the flesh of an enemy to take on his power. All of these things and more are woven into the story, not just sitting there in the background as decoration and colour.

We don't just ask about the Nigerians though. There's not too much depth in the standard evil multinational corporation that is MNU or in the use of mercenaries, but there are a lot of forms of authority here to focus on. The tin hat brigade will love the way Blomkamp plays with the use of media and especially the manipulation of that media for specific purpose. It prompts us to wonder at our belief in what we watch and how closely it resembles reality.

I also especially liked the use of mob dynamics. I don't know how well it would all stand up to mathematical analysis, but we get a lot of fight scenes with believable outcomes that speak to the use of numbers. The toughest guy doesn't always win and neither does the most sophisticated technology. How's that for a message for Hollywood? This whole film is a message to Hollywood. It says that as Hollywood product gets more soulless, more reliant on CGI and special effects and less even concerned about such things as character and plot, what they woud see as an upstart director in an upstart country can produce something that trumps them in every regard. I pray that it succeeds beyond its wildest expectations.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Hal.

    I really liked this film a lot, too.

    p.s. I think we exchanged emails about paperbacks a while back.