Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9 review

“It costs so much money to keep them here…at least they’re keeping them separate,” a South African woman says about the new group of illegal aliens occupying Johannesburg. Immigration and its inherent problems are nothing new, but these are unique visitors.

Hovering over Johannesburg, a spaceship of roughly a kilometre long hangs ominously. Below, in a sprawling slum, the aliens (resembling giant preying mantises crossed with prawns) are second-class citizens yearning for a different life.

When we arrive at District 9, the aliens have been stuck in the slum for 20 years and are set to be moved outside the city to a new camp. Bumbling administrator Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley in a strong feature debut) has been put in the charge of the Herculean task of shepherding the immigrants to their new abode.

Set up in a cinema verité style that mixes CCTV and documentary style interviews with the action, District 9 works well in setting up its premise. Interviewees (ranging from academics to police to members of the public) explain how the “prawns” have had trouble assimilating with society, how they’ve become a magnet for criminal opportunists and how residents of Johannesburg have grown to distrust and hate them.

Debut director Neill Blomkamp, expanding on his short film Alive in Joburg, composes some incredible imagery in these opening scenes. The first glimpse we see of the aliens has seared its way into my consciousness for the foreseeable future. Blomkamp, who has a background in both special effects and TV commercial direction, has a gift for making the outlandish scenario seem real, from the remarkable alien creations (such expressive faces and body language) to the use of real locations (including actual former slums for the alien compound).

Back to the plot: Unsurprisingly, the planned evacuation of the aliens doesn’t go according to plan and the cocktail of mutual distrust, corporate incompetence and a heavy-handed security team doesn’t mix well. What transpires is both a journey of discovery for Wikus and also a turning point in the stalemate between locals and their new neighbours.

While District 9’s satire and social commentary lacks the wit of Starship Troopers (to which it owes a debt), it’s an exciting, original and efficient science fiction drama. Blomkamp’s greatest talents lie in the visuals of the storytelling and he seems more interested in emotion than intellect. Indeed, the film has far more emotional heft than I was anticipating, from the sad introduction of the aliens to a beautifully poignant closing shot.

As a relatively low-budget opus, it’s not hyperbole to compare District 9 to Terminator or Alien. It drops some thought-provoking ideas into the mix, but Blomkamp is more interested in maintaining a swift pace than pondering the big issues he raises so well in the early scenes: In other words, he’s closer to James Cameron than Ridley Scott. Blomkamp's influences are evident (including Verhoeven and Cronenberg) but he has a clear voice of his own.

2009 is becoming a landmark year for science fiction cinema. Already we’ve had Star Trek, Moon and District 9. At least two of those films might fairly be considered modern classics and Star Trek and District 9 have been encouragingly well-received at cinema tills. And we still have James Cameron’s Avatar to look forward to. Bring it!

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