Monday, September 14, 2009

Film Gauge - "District 9" (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

What: "District 9" (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
When: Friday, August 21st, 2009 11:15 AM
Where: AMC 34th St. (34th St. & 8th Ave.)

It is not a common occurrence when in the throes of blockbuster season to be confronted at the movie theater with ambiguity and issues of great social importance. Amid the sequels, reboots and romantic comedies of summer, it is even stranger still to find these ideas packaged in the Trojan Horse guise of an action-packed alien thriller. But District 9, for good or ill, is just such a film. By virtue of its odd dichotomy of political commentary and popcorn thrills, the experience of watching District 9 is a strange one, intermittently rewarding and cringe-making. First-time director Neill Blomkamp's film is bursting with style and ideas, and most surprisingly a rather bleak outlook on human nature that is constantly at odds with the conventions of the action genre. Ironic, then, that such a unique project resulted from the demise of one of the more uninspired-sounding projects buzzing around Hollywood these days: the motion picture adaptation of the videogame Halo.

The film, set in the uneasy environs of Johannesburg, begins as a rather clear-cut allegory for the apartheid system in South Africa. A defenseless alien ship becomes stranded over the city, and the government corrals the thousands of impoverished alien inhabitants into a horrific shantytown called "District 9." We are presented with a series of talking head interviews - government agents, reporters, politicians and locals setting the scene and expressing their opinions on how best to deal with the "Prawns" (a slur for our extraterrestrial visitors). These docu-style sound bites combine with a mix of staged and archival news footage to create a queasy verisimilitude. It is a bravura opening, to be sure, but one that continually skirts the line of exploitation. We see the computer-generated aliens integrated seamlessly into unmistakably real footage of rioting black South Africans alongside staged scenes of township dwellers watching a "dog fight" between insectoid alien creatures. These images, in service of the allegory, are often too glib for comfort.

It is soon made clear, however, that Blomkamp is making a larger point about the oppressive forces that converge on District 9, though the pitilessness with which even supposedly sympathetic figures are portrayed is astonishing. The film's ostensible hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (portrayed by the charismatic acting novice Sharlto Copley) is one of the most selfish and cowardly protagonists in recent cinematic memory. Wikus is a low-level bureaucrat charged with evicting the residents of District 9 and moving them to even more sinister accommodations (an outwardly "humanitarian" effort spearheaded, in a twist emblematic of the film's pitch black view of government, by an independently contracted weapons manufacturer hell-bent on co-opting Prawn firepower). As Wikus goes about his duties, he comes across an alien nest, destroying the gestating fetuses with the dispassionate interest of a hobbyist, laughing for the camera all the while. In moments like these, Blomkamp muddies his film with real life - there are no heroes, and even those underdogs that we may want to root for occasionally do ugly things.

Coming as it does on the heels of such an intriguing and morally ambiguous first half, the third act of District 9 is somewhat disappointing in its more simplified tone. As Wikus finds himself on the wrong side of the conflict between the Prawns and his employers, the film shifts focus from documentary realism to more straightforward action setpieces. A McGuffin is introduced that holds the key to the aliens' salvation, and Wikus forms an unlikely alliance with a Prawn named Christopher who may be the closest thing the film has to a truly heroic character. Of course, in keeping with Blomkamp's cynical view, Christopher is swiftly betrayed by self-interested humans and his plan to return home goes awry. No matter how close the filmmaker comes to conforming to any sort of genre convention, it is not in his nature to give us the clich├ęd happy ending.

With District 9, Neill Blomkamp has found a middle ground between escapist entertainment and the evening news, an intellectually stimulating but often uncomfortable place to visit. Nonetheless, it is a creative oasis in the blockbuster desert.

Click here to see the "District 9" trailer

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