Friday, August 28, 2009

Review: "District 9"

It's no big secret that the science fiction genre is not in the most respectable state. Even the Sci-Fi channel has changed its name to SyFy in an effort to make itself sound more hip. Generally, science fiction is a genre associated with pimply nerds and overweight computer geeks. Finding a science fiction film, especially one released in the last 20 years or so, that isn't intellectually vapid or a bland retread of other films is quite a challenge. There have been some noble attempts of legitimizing the genre, with films such as Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris to more recent efforts like Duncan Jones' Moon. Even J.J. Abrams' update of Star Trek veers more into fantasy/adventure territory. The days of intelligent, probing science fiction like the works of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, or Arthur C. Clarke seem to be gone.

Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry once said, "For me science fiction is a way of thinking, a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense. It allows people to look directly at important subjects." No one understood science fiction as allegory better than Roddenberry, who routinely used his groundbreaking show to deal with subjects such as racism and the war in Vietnam in a powerfully symbolic way in order to get past the network censors. Watching an episode like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" today shows a strong social awareness of the time in which it was made.

Flash forward 40 years to 2009, and along comes Neill Blomkamp's astounding directorial debut,
District 9, as refined an intelligent a summer blockbuster as we have seen in years, and the smartest piece of science fiction in a decade. It is a stunning throwback to the sharply written, socially significant sci-fi works of old. Set in South Africa 20 years after first contact with an alien race, District 9 imagines how humans would handle their first interactions with extraterrestrials. In a virtuoso opening act, Blomkamp takes the audience through arrival of the mothership using harrowing, documentary-like footage. The insect-like aliens, nicknamed "prawns," are found in the ship starving and living in squalor. So the South African government removes them from the ship and places them in deplorable slums in an area called District 9, right under the ship.

For the next 20 years, there is great civil unrest caused by the unruliness of the prawns and the fear of the humans. By keeping the aliens separate and marginalized in this filthy ghetto, the humans assert their superiority while patting themselves on the back for being so generous as to rescue these aliens and allow them to live on our planet. But the tensions are rising too high, and soon the government makes plans to relocate them to a what amounts to a concentration camp, and calls in the private arms company, Multi-National United, or MNU, to forcibly evacuate the prawns. They are led by a desk jockey named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a simple pawn chosen for his easy pliability. But when the operation begins to go south, Winkus finds himself the victim of an alien substance that begins to transform him into one of them. Suddenly forced to go on the run from the government, which wants to experiment on him to find a way to use alien, DNA controlled weaponry, Winkus meets Christopher Johnson, a prawn leader who is trying to return to the mothership and get his people safely back home and away from their oppression on Earth. Winkus, now a man without a home, half human and half prawn, must now see the world through the eyes of those he once helped oppress, and rely on them to return back to the way he once was.

It's all a very thinly veiled allegory for Apartheid, South Africa's systematic oppression of its black majority population. Even the alien's name, Christopher Johnson, suggests a mandated "human" name placed on him by humans looking to simplify them into something they can understand. And unlike most summer blockbusters,
District 9 uses its special effects to enhance the story, not overwhelm it. The aliens look fantastic, and are always kept grounded in reality that it never feels false. They are probably the most believable extraterrestrials ever seen on film just for the pure fact that they are tangible manifestations, not CGI cartoons. Through his mixed-media use of hand-held, news camera footage, Blomkamp keeps the film focused on the smaller picture. It's an audacious mix of forms, but it works. The camera is always right there in the action, either being held by one of the characters, or showing us what the characters are really seeing. Government propaganda footage, after all, lies.

To top it all off, Blomkamp has the gall to end the film without any real resolution, even after taking his central character, an essentially unlikable weasel of a man, on a fully realized character arc that never once feels false or contrived. There are so many questions left unanswered that there is plenty of room for a sequel, but that sense of the unknown is just too powerful. It's an invigorating, thrilling narrative of surprising emotional depth, and Blomkamp steers it with the eye of a born storyteller, refusing to give into the urge to turn it into just another alien invasion movie. These aliens feel
real, and they have real personalities to match. He actually makes us feel for these initially off-putting insectoids, they are more human than the humans are. And while some of the peripheral characters may be painted in broad, cartoonish strokes, Winkus and Christopher Johnson always remain grounded, with Winkus going from despicable minion to unlikely hero to self serving jerk and back again. It's quite daring to have the film's protagonist be such an inherently disgusting character, but it makes his personal journey all the more compelling.

One of science fiction's greatest writers, Arthur C. Clark, sums it up best
;
There's no real objection to escapism, in the right places... We all want to escape occasionally. But science fiction is often very far from escapism, in fact you might say that science fiction is escape into reality... It's a fiction which does concern itself with real issues: the origin of man; our future. In fact I can't think of any form of literature which is more concerned with real issues, reality.
District 9
, in fact, is a near perfect blend of both. It is both a thrilling summer action film and a deeper exploration of timely and important themes. Blomkamp has managed to mix escapism with intelligent allegory, making a film that is both grand entertainment and an outright repudiation of the mindless frat boy culture that so often dominates the multiplexes in the summer. I don't remember the last time we saw such an exciting and intellectually adept summer blockbuster from a first time director. District 9 isn't just great science fiction, it's great filmmaking period. This is the kind of film that not only restores faith in mainstream filmmaking, but in the art form as a whole.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DISTRICT 9; Directed by Neill Blomkamp; Stars Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood; Rated R for
bloody violence and pervasive language.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, it is indeed 'not just great science fiction' but 'great filmmaking' as well. Superb review!

For me it's one of teh best films of 2009 at this point.