Friday, August 21, 2009

"Don't give up on me..."

I finally saw District 9 last night at a free screening, and I am so glad I was able to go. I should have been watching this movie on opening day. In a perfect world where I went to Comic Con, I would have gone to every panel relating to it. The movie intrigued me from the first time I saw the trailer, and it actually exceeded my expectations. I'm going to do my best to write a spoiler-free review here, because I really think people should go see this movie. Even though all I really want to do is go "OH MAN did you see it when _______ picked up that ______ and _____ it at the _______ and BLEW HIM UP?!?! That was awesome."

There's a lot you can expect from District 9 just from the advertising, and from knowing what similar movies have done. It's got obvious apartheid and immigration allegory written all over it, and it's heavy-handed with the faux documentary style. It almost seems, as my friend Ash pointed out, reminiscent of 28 Days Later, where human nature is revealed by the intrusion of another kind of humanoid species. But then when you get to the theater, there's a lot more to it.

In bare terms, District 9 is the story of what happens 20 years after a beat-down group of aliens have stalled their ship over Johannesburg. The humans, led by the MNU organization, have placed them in a slum within city limits, and are testing their weapons and technology. The aliens only want to go home, but after two decades of not being able to, have devolved into criminals and slumdogs. Johannesburg residents are tired of the drain that District 9 has put onto their city, and MNU's response is to relocate the aliens ("prawns") to an even worse favela outside of city limits. Wikus van de Merwe is an MNU desk jockey appointed by his father-in-law to oversee the one-day eviction process. He is accidentally sprayed with a mysterious fluid in an alien capsule, and gets injured. Over the following days, as he gets sicker and sicker from the incident, his own government turns on him, and he must try to find a solution, with the help of a prawn named Christopher.

South African actor Sharlto Copley, who got the role of Wikus from his close friend, writer-director Neill Blomkamp, was really exceptional. In the film's first act, which is very handheld, documentary-style, Copley acts as a perfect caricature of an overeager bureaucrat with shellacked hair and a perfectly trimmed mustache. He's comic and hapless, quite like Rhys Darby's Murray on Flight of the Conchords. In the second act, while Wikus is trying to figure out what's happened to him, what's going to happen to him, and how he'll manage to reunite with his wife, Copley is fidgety and frightened and believably out of it. By the third act, it is almost unbelievable that the same man is onscreen. He's transformed into a scifi action star as grizzled and determined as any. Completely badass and surprisingly handsome.

There are a number of sociopolitical issues raised in the movie that deserve examination, but as I don't want to post any spoilers, I'll direct you to this interesting post at Racialicious. I don't quite agree with everything in that article (because it takes offense at the film's portrayal of "Hollywood's Africa" even though the film is made by South African filmmakers), but it's worth reading if you've seen the movie.

By the end of the movie, I had laughed, I had gotten nervous, I had been grossed out, and I had rooted for different characters. There were excellent special effects for any movie, especially impressive because of the $30million budget. Robots, imaginatively conceived weaponry, explosions, spaceships. The film gets exciting fast. The ending is satisfying on its own, but particularly tuned to a sequel or franchise. Personally, I can't wait for District 10, so here's hoping that enough people love this movie and make it happen!

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