Review – District 9

Originally Posted at Geek In the City 08/09/09

I love the fact the Halo movie never got made. Creatively, it’s just another Aliens lift. Financially, the series is already making ridiculous amounts of money on its own, without Hollywood help. It stank of Bungie/Microsoft chasing a false legitimacy, as if Halo’s standing in pop culture was invalid until it moved at 24 frames a second for 10 bucks a ticket in your local multiplex. But Halo is loved because it’s a multiplayer first person shooter, and it afforded people the opportunity to scream racial epithets at 13 year old Asian kids while copious teabagging of dead digital bodies occurred. While drunk. At 2 in the morning.

I submit to you that adapting this experience would prove tough.

But mostly, I love that Halo never got made because it allowed Peter Jackson to fund something much more interesting and relevant than yet another brainless video game adaptation. Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an accumulation of wide-ranging influences, styles and themes, synthesized and fused in a beautifully ugly way; Cronenbergian body-horror unfolding uncomfortably in a slum setting, shot like The Shield, starring nebbish cubicle-dwellers, in a story that uses the concept of aliens landing on earth to examine the nature of subjugation and oppression without falling into easy stereotype and ham-fisted allegory.

Wikus Van De Merwe is the subject of the faux-documentary that weaves itself throughout District 9’s narrative. He’s been recently promoted at MNU, the organization responsible for segregating the stranded occupants of a giant spaceship impotently hovering over Johannesburg. The aliens live in slum villages, trading their alien technology for cans of cat food, which they hork into their insectoid faces with the fervor of a junkie securing a bag of black tar.

They are resigned to a fate of eating tires (they taste like marshmallows to “prawns,” mankind’s derogatory nickname for them,) and being shuttled from one slum to another by angry humans who are increasingly frustrated by their inability to appropriate the aliens’ weapons tech. Wikus is now in charge of one of these relocation operations. It of course goes horribly wrong, and the visceral, hyperkinetic game of hide and go seek that follows causes Wikus to question his morality, his loyalty, and what it means to be human.

Sharlto Copley’s portrayal of Wikus is striking. He’s wiry and sweaty, ineffectual, and over-eager. A people-pleaser, out of his depth, with crappy social skills; sour, selfish and self-delusional. This is what would happen if that sneering douchebag IT guy in your office was inserted into the nascent stages of an interplanetary crisis. The transformation his character undergoes is painful to watch, and Copley walks the line between sympathetic and plain-ol’ pathetic rather excitedly.

More importantly, he absolutely sells the idea that the CG creatures he’s interacting with are there, almost as much as the Digital Effects crew does. Spread across 4 companies (Image Digital, who did the bulk of the work, The Embassy, WETA and Zoic), the creatures convey emotion with a surprisingly effective subtlety, and only rarely betray their all-digital nature. Not to give short shrift to the action, though; This film is probably the most relentlessly, ridiculously violent thing I’ve seen in theaters since Rambo in January 08. In fact, this film might top that one in the very highly esteemed statistical category “Number of Human Beings Turned Into Giant Exploding Bags of Blood and Meat.”

It’s weird to say this film is subtle and challenging when it features a robot picking up a pig and firing it into a human so hard it pushes them both through the back wall of a shanty. Blomkamp directs robot action better than Michael Bay ever has, and one set piece in particular feels like the answer to the question “What would happen if Optimus Prime fell into the Cloverfield movie?” The lunatic frenzy this film achieves makes it a little easier to overlook the main villain’s propensity towards empty preening and endless monologuing. It looks a lot like Randy Couture playing Syndrome from The Incredibles, and is about as out-of-place and laughable as you’d think. The pacing suffers as well, as the connective tissue between set-pieces in the last 45 minutes is less tendon and more wet single-ply.

But the set-up is so pitch perfect (and it should be, Blomkamp’s been working on it for about a decade now, rough-drafted once already with his short Alive in Joburg) and the film is so propulsive and thoughtful that you’d have to be willingly rooting against the movie to consider those faults for more than a few moments. Especially once the film comes to its quiet, almost Spielbergian end. Maybe Halo can be made into a decent movie. Maybe Blomkamp was the guy who could do it. But I would trade a thousand Halo movies for something as exciting, fun and insightful as District 9.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:12 am  Comments Off on Review – District 9  
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