District 9 [R]
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope Vanessa Haywood, Louis Minaar
Director: Neill Blomkamp
We move from the man’s face to a shot of the Johannesburg skyline at sunset. Panning left across the shadowy towers and an impossibly red sky, the sun seems to spin and waft gas. Then it suddenly dissolves into a pit of fire at night, with dark figures standing about it. Perfect.
The fluidity of this stunning transition, in a film that sneers at unimaginative transitions, is a sign of the skill and visual imagination involved in District 9. Although he overdoes it from time to time, director Neill Blomkamp rarely fails to find a way to make a shot interesting or explosive.
I’ll sum District 9 up quickly – this sci-fi story is very good filmmaking in service of a pretty good film. The thing that you must understand is the intensity of the action. The pacing is torrential. Sometimes it’s even too fast, cheating moments of their resonance. But for the most part, it successfully and consistently raises hairs.
The intensity of the action is matched by the realism that propels it. The shaky-cam documentary film works very well here, as the film comes across with the feel of an old war reel. The other big thing is the absolute tactile realness of the alien creatures, called prawns, with an insect-on-steroids appearance. A combination of digital and live acting, they don’t look merely real unto themselves, but realistically matched to their environment. Several viewers might be surprised to learn afterward that no such aliens live in South Africa. But don’t let Jessica Simpson in on the joke. It’s funnier that way.
Those poor prawns could have used a better map. They arrive on Earth in a damaged spaceship. Of all the places to park it, they found South Africa, hanging squarely above Johannesburg. Perhaps future aliens should strand their spaceship over somewhere with less of a history of racial division. After 20 years of violence and searching through rubbish for catfood, the million-plus aliens have been cordoned off into a shantytown called District 9.
In a sequence that targets both plot exposition and dark humor, the film opens as a pseudo-documentary, a tone that it will largely hold, with some annoying departures, for the next two hours. A television crew tags along as teams of a paid police militia enter District 9 to evict its alien occupants and relocate them to new homes in District 10, farther from the city.
Our point of entry into the movie is Wikus van der Merwe, a cowardly, not so bright administrator who has risen to his position by marrying the daughter of the corporate owner. The corporation is an arms manufacturer whose private army watches over the aliens. Following the eviction, Vikus finds himself turning into an alien, growing a prawn claw in place of his hand. This makes him capable of using their technology, which interests a bunch of malicious parties. Hunted by the corporation, he takes refuge among the prawns. Half man and half prawn, he soon finds himself engaged in a plan to help the aliens escape and to return to human form.
District 9’s biggest blemish is that its protagonist operates as if he is in another film. The serious pseudo-documentary façade is too often filled with a main character doing a Monty Python routine, like officiously asks fishy aliens to sign their eviction notices. Later, he conveniently shifts from weakling to action hero when the script needs it – in a snap he goes from John Cleese to John Wayne. I don’t think Sharlto Copley, with little acting experience, pulls it off. Unlike most of the cast, I always felt him acting.
The apartheid theme is fine, but like most apartheid films, it doesn’t allow for a lot maneuvering. Essentially, apartheid = bad, supporters = villains. It does deliver a feeling of importance. But a film criticizing apartheid should do better than reducing its black characters to criminal thugs with more machete than heart.
The more interesting and traditionally sci-fi themed line would be whether it should matter to Wikus if he becomes a prawn. It is still life and consciousness. What beyond familiarity of form is so distressing to him? Is there something about being human that we should miss? The film should end where Ray Bradbury might have ended it, with Wikus returned to human form, but kept as a last human in a Prawn zoo. But what do I know – that would make it hard to have a sequel.