September 10 2009

District 9

district 9What happens when not-so-smart aliens end up on Earth with no way to leave? You get humans at their finest, of course.

District 9 is the story of an alien ship that arrived over Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982, and then went on to just hover over the city for three months with no indication of life on board.  Humans, being a curious lot, decided to finally fly up to the ship and cut their way in.  What they found was over 1 million aliens living in squalor, rife with malnutrition and slowly dying.  In short, they found a ship full of refugees.

The humans, so well known for being a caring group of souls, set up a camp for them named “District 9”.  As time progressed, and people grew more fearful of these visitors and their powerful weapons, the camp turned more into a prison with a shanty town interior.  Nigerian gangsters also moved in, taking advantage of the aliens by selling them over-priced cat food, their favorite snack, and setting up inter-species prostitution.

Now some 20 years have passed, and the MNU (Multinational United), a private military contractor, which has overseen District 9 from the start, has been told to relocate the aliens to an encampment some 240 kms outside of Johannesburg.  The citizens of the city are thrilled, but the aliens don’t seem to even understand what is being said to them.

Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an obviously not-so-intelligent worker for MNU, is put in charge of the operation due to his being married to the bosses daughter (daddy denies this, but it’s fairly clear), and on his first day he gets infected by an alien virus.

Beyond that story point you’ll have to watch the movie, but don’t be fooled, this movie isn’t about the science fiction as much as it is about themes: themes of segregation, xenophobia, the good will of humanity, treating those different than yourself as equals and so on.

This movie is overflowing with themes, and it actually handles them all rather deftly, but then you get to the third act of the film, and it seems like the decision was made, “Okay, everyone learned their lessons about humanity, start blowing stuff up!”  While it was still enjoyable, the third act of the film is so different from the previous two that it is almost jarring.  There is still a little bit of closure to the story arc of van de Merwe, but it really is all about blowing stuff up and setting up a potential sequel.

Let me say there were two stand out things about this film beyond the story, and that was Sharlto Copley and the special effects.  Mr. Copley has been involved in the South African film industry for some time, but this is the first time he has ever gotten attention on a world wide scale.  His performance as the initially unlikable Wikus van de Merwe really carries you through this film.  There is one scene I don’t want to give to say too much about it and ruin it for you (it’s the scene with the “eggs”), that his performance is so believable, so filled with glee at what he is doing, that you feel like you are actually watching a documentary and you detest this man.

The second thing, the special effects, were phenomenal.  For a film with a $30 million budget, it looked as good as anything coming out of Hollywood in the $175 million budget range nowadays.  A lot of studios could take a lesson from this film and how to scale back on their budgets and still look utterly fantastic.

Lastly, director Neill Blomkamp is going to have a very long career in front of him judging by this project.  He has a fresh, gritty style that is engrossing and quickly transports you into the story.

Overall an entertaining film, even with the run-of-the-mill third act, that I will gladly watch again many times over the coming years.

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