Thursday, October 1, 2009

District 9 Review

Originally posted on August 18, 2009 in the "Tom Servo Reviews" section of

There isn't a lot that I can add to Distroct 9's dozens upon dozens of glowingly positive reviews. Put plainly, it is a creative, well-crafted and entertaining film. What I can do is address the concerns that some may still have from what they've seen the trailer and elsewhere. Yes, most of the effect shots in the trailer and TV spots, including the robot suit stuff, are from the end of the movie, but it's not as much of a spoiler as you may fear. It's also not nearly all that the film has to offer in the spectacle department. There's a ton of stuff that they could never trim enough to be presentable in a network TV spot. Alien weapons come into play and they are nasty, nasty business. People don't just get shot. They go pop. A minority of reviewers have have focused on this element to trash District 9 for "degenerating" into a "shoot-em up" and a "video game" at the end. Well, what they say with disdain, I say with admiration. Yes, there are video game-like qualities to this film. The best kinds. The jaw-dropping kinds. The kinds of things that make you say to yourself while you're playing "Wow. Why can't they do things like this in the movies?" That's what it's like. A possible problem character who caught my eye in the trailer was the black special ops guy with the scar on his cheek looking badass and pointing. "Just what this movie needs," I thought "some tough guy enforcer dude spouting evil one liners." Fear not, that shot comprises this guy's entire role. There is an evil tough guy enforcer dude, and he doesn't say anything clever or witty. He kills aliens and oozes hatred, but he never takes it over the top. The action scenes do come close though. I can promise that you will see few movies this year that will cause you to choke back a tear whilst rooting for a giant grasshopper as lighting guns cause bodies to explode off of gun towers in ways that Paul Verhoeven might think was a bit much. This is the real strength of District 9, the ability to subvert the expectations and get ahead of the trained reactions of even the most experienced sci-fi fan.
Surprisingly, Paul Verhoeven is the perfect guy to bring up while talking about District 9, because in my opinion it's nearest cousin in the sci-fi/ action/ social commentary department is probably Robocop. It's just the sort of film that, a lot of people, in spite of the good press, will still just dismiss as just another childish, violent sci-fi movie. May of those who go to see it, will be turned off by the raining blood from the bombastic alien weaponry and write it off as just a simple monster movie lacking any "humanity", as my local reviewer did here in Philly (Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer). I suspect that his mistake was to look for the film's humanity in the human characters. Our main character Wikus Van De Merwe, is spineless, self-interested, casually genocidal paper pusher. His willingness to allow aliens refugees to be gunned down like dogs in the street and their children to be burned in their egg sacks comes not from any real racial hated, but from ignorance, stupidity and blind faith in the system. He exactly the sort of cowardly bureaucrat that comprises the backbone of any oppressive regime. Given this introduction to our human characters, one should not be surprised to learn that it is an alien, not a human who is the only character in the film who is seen being overtly moved by the death and pain he sees around him. The fact that he looks like a side order at Lobster Fest, is only a superficial detail, and one that will be meaningless by the end of the film, if one is watching in the correct frame of mind.
I'm not going to go any further into the story except to tell you that it begins with a Trail of Tears type resettlement of the aliens from the titular district to a concentration camp-like tent city far away from the human population. It then morphs into a man-on-the-run story as our wretched protagonist Wikus starts growing an alien-like claw after squirting himself with the wrong can of goo, and Johannesburg's Halliburton-like defense contractors, the "MNU" imprint featured on the brilliant "Humans Only" viral marketing campaign, think that they can monetize the mutations in Wiktus' body but only after vivisecting him in their slaughterhouse of a genetics lab. He, somewhat implausibly, breaks free and seeks help in the least (or most) likely part of town. It's a fairly straightforward story but remains compelling due to the performances of our weaselly main character and "Christopher Johnson" an alien with a secret agenda and an Ellis Island name. If you're at all worried that this is going to be all social commentary and no action, don't worry. There are overt themes of racism, genocide and exploitation of the masses by the Military Industrial Complex, but there's still plenty of room for running fire fights, a car chase and no less than ten minutes of that exo-suit brawling with security forces. Good stuff if you can tolerate extended video game-style action and violence.
As for the look of the film, I found it engaging and as intelligent. The faux cinema vérité mixed with news footage gag wore out it's welcome for me with Diary of the Dead, but here we see that anything can be done well no matter how badly it's been abused in the past. The fourth wall is casually broken as shots weave in and out or surveillance cameras, interviews and then back into the action. It's done with smarts and edited like a piece of music. Don't let anyone tell you that this is just Cloverfield all over again. It's not. I liked Cloverfield for what it was, but District 9 is a real movie that doesn't rely on one trick for ninety minutes. District 9's bag of tricks is much bigger and better utilized.
Production-wise things measure up just as well. The CGI isn't 100% convincing in every shot, but it's solid and never upstages the story- even when it's staring down the camera. The creatures display genuine emotion without being too human, and real pains have been taken to make them all look different. This is not one stock model that is cloned a thousand times. All of the principal aliens have been given their own facial features, body type and coloration. They've even been given plausible rags to wear, although the one wearing a pink bra is a bit too weird looking to not pull the viewer out of the movie for just a second or two. It reminded me of WALL-E. The fact that they all speak in subtitles is the icing on the cake. There are characters on screen that cost thousands of dollars per second to animate, and the director it's afraid to force your eye away from them to read what it's saying.
What we see of the alien's tech is even better. Their weapons, covered in twenty years of grit and grime looks like a combination DOOM and Home Depot. Their worn metal and plastic casings show every minute of their age, but undercut none of their menace. Aesthetically we don't get that standard all-chrome techno alien gear look either. The production designers should be commended for giving a space travel-capable alien race a sense of design that allows for racing stripes. Industrial designers can phone in paint schemes on Planet X just as easily as they do here on Earth, and why wouldn't they? It's lived-in but not Star Wars, and it's modern without being Star Trek. It's just well done.
As for me,. I loved every minute of District 9. It doesn't have Robocop's laughs or 2001's scale (thank God), but has brains and soul. Not everything that I was hoping for was explored during the course of the film, such as the defense contractors being obsessed with reverse engineering the alien weapons but strangely disinterested in investigating their mothership. The cumulative effect of seeing District 9 is satisfying and effectively pulls the viewer into its world. I just better not hear anyone using the word "Prawn" to describe my alien brothers, or I'm going to have to go all exo-suit, lightning gun on their asses.

As for the sequel prospects- if I have to see lousy, straight to DVD Districts 10, 11 and 12 in the video store, it will be with a profound sadness that will eclipse even the shame I feel for the Starship Troopers sequels and American Psycho 2 starring Mila Kunis.

As for the story- always a concern when a feature is based on a six minute short- it's solid but not terribly complicated. The back-story of the alien's arrival is given in a surprisingly riveting history lesson at the head of the film inter-cut with news camera footage of our main character Wikus Van De Merwe, a boring, spineless, middle-management Afrikaner fall guy as he prepares to head up a Trail of Tears type resettlement of the "Prawns" (think the N word for crustaceans) away from the urban population and into a tent city concentration camp. Other interviews are inter-cut from a later point hinting at Wikus' "betrayal" and suggestions of something horrible having happened to him. One of the other management types is being interviewed in what appears to be an orange prison jumper further suggesting disaster. The underlying motive of the resettlement as a way to further separate the aliens from what little alien technology they are hanging onto is clear but never overstated. Unlike an American produced sci-fi, the audience is treated like adults and trusted to understand what is going on.
Also unlike most American productions, the main character that we are given is as much of a reprehensible, casually racist idiot as you are likely to find. Wikus Van De Merwe is not a slogan shouting fascist or a racist. He's an office worker who does his job and doesn't question the system. The fact that the system treats an entire species as animals and burns their children like garbage make no difference to him as long as he can go home at the end of the day and relax with his "angel" of a wife: A wife who drops him like a hot rock when things go bad and a system that attempts to vivisect him for profit and then brands him as a pervert and (although the phrase is never actually used in the movie) race traitor. From this point on, he's a wanted man and must seek help in the least (as in most) likely of places which will challenge some of his institutionally ingrained opinions. Wikus' character arc is motivated however, not by a sense of justice or his growth as a person but out of pure self preservation. It's this detail that really hammers home the almost ridiculously obvious overtones of racial inequity in the film: social change coming not from the softening of hearts, but from a negative cost/ benefit ratio. If you think that this is an unfair assessment of human decency, then District 9 may not be the movie for you, but there is more here than that, and if you can see the humanity in a CGI monster crying over the body of his fallen comrade, then you might just get a great deal out of District 9.

The look of the alien tech is perfect. Worn metal and plastic display a realistically industrial feel.The designers have even added colored stripes and the sort of paint jobs that power tool companies adorn their products with to liven up their blockish utilitarian designs. Add twenty years of muck and you have alien artifacts that look like they are straight off of an alien construction site/ battlefield.

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