14 August 2009

District 9

District 9
starring Sharlto Copley, Robert Hobbs, Jason Cope
written by Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
directed by Neil Blomkamp
release: 14 August 2009
Columbia TriStar, 113 mins., Rated R


Oh my god.
Oh my God (!!!)...
Double Woah!

That, in a nutshell, was my experience watching District 9, basically one of the most visually stunning, brilliantly crafted science fiction/adventure stories ever put to film. Granted, I haven’t seen as many alien movies as I’d really like to, so I probably should judge this movie in accordance to what has come before it, but this flick is so damn fun, interesting, and gripping that any sort of comparisons I’d make, we’ll, I really don’t give a damn. I love District 9. Yippie for the influences of the alien epics that came before it, but this really is its own little beastie.

A giant spacecraft suddenly hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon landing, the parts that make the craft function apparently broke off and couldn’t be found, leaving the alien beings stranded on earth. Dubbed “prawns” as low-level life forms, the South African government created a zone for the aliens to inhabit. With no way get back home, the aliens prawns make the most of their time on earth: erecting housing, attempting a friendly co-existence with the humans, etc., etc. After twenty years of suffering through the troubles of the prawns, the South African people become a bit tired and want them out. Here we meet the films central character, Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley), a recently promoted employee at MNU, a government-sanctioned division existing to ensure continued peace with the aliens. Heeding the public’s outcry to move the aliens, the government sanctions a raid to District 9 to hand the aliens eviction notices. During this raid on the 1.5 million alien inhabitants, Wikus is exposed to a black alien fluid of some sort. Gradually, the fluid begins to show drastic side effects. From there, things just go horribly, horribly wrong.

Right off the bat, the story is very enticing. From the moment Wikus is exposed all the way to the movie’s climax, which leaves it open for a sequel but also gives enough closure to be a sufficient stand-alone experience (which I hope isn’t the case), the movie holds your attention with 100% rich and realistic characters acting precisely how a person matching their particular personality would act or react (not to mention the nifty aliens). Nothing seems contrived or directed simply to arrive at this next plot point. Everything is completely believable and makes sense. Wikus turns from a happy-go-lucky guy to a man looking out for himself, even nearly betraying a comrade in the name of self-preservation. [Reminds me of Gaius Baltar of BSG fame] The script is intelligent, the characters and aliens completely three-dimensional and never wavering in their believability and actions. And even with the spoiler-ish trailer and massive marketing campaign, I was surprised as hell as to what exactly this movie was about, and many of the developments took me aback.

These aliens aren’t just aliens in the vaguest sense; they all have an individual personality and feel so completely real, and not just because of the CG (although that’s a pretty big component). They have their own identity and life, never feeling like...well, an alien. The two prawns that Wikus interacts with for most of the movie are especially gripping and three-dimensional, their plights and desire to get home pretty much heart-breaking.

D9's first twenty minutes is all newscast & interview footage. The interviewees discuss the rumors of District 9, how the prawns were treated, the reaction of the people and government of the aliens' new home. Normally, I'd find this gimmick to be a cheat, but it's used so effectively here I nearly don't care. And the newscast footage of the aliens living in their environment day in and day out - outstanding. I know I talk about it a lot, but when you see these prawns onscreen (especially in the first twenty), you won't feel like you're watching digital pixels.

Cinematography is just like Children of Men, but less intense and with absolutely believable aliens onscreen. And no Clive Owen. Part of me wishes Blomkamp handled Cloverfield after seeing how splendidly real the camcorder hand-held shots are. Thankfully, the hand-held never gets in the way of the drama or the action, never interfering or being buggy-ish. And on an unrelated although absolutely-need-to-be-mentioned note, the score by Clinton Shorter is, well, brilliant. If there's a CD available, it'll be mind before weekend's end. [Note: apparently a deal has been brokered with Sony Music, and a pre-order for Amazon will be forthcoming; so, no CD available yet]

Any review of District 9 will not be complete without specific mention of the movie’s special visual effects, which I would pretty much call groundbreaking. Granted, what’s been accomplished here has been done by the likes of Gollum and King Kong, but there has never, ever been completely digital creatures that felt truly and completely real. In the news cast footage – absolutely real. The spacecraft – absolutely real. These creatures feel like they live and breath in the same atmosphere as our main cast, them never sharing a scene with an invisible object later put in digitally. Even the robot thingy that shows up in the climax – absolutely beautiful to behold, and all the more impressive considering its level of realism in broad daylight, usually the death stroke for heavy CG flicks. Even more, the prawns are able to elicit an emotional response from this viewer, which I wager it'll accomplish with many others: one particular scene sees a prawn looking upon the remains of another of its species, and even amidst a shoot-out, it just stands there, eyes fixed on its blood and organs on the operating table, distraught and angry. These are real creatures inhabiting the screen, ladies and gents.

I love District 9. I think it’s a beautiful movie to look at, unquestionably; the performances from every single person involved were exceptional; the music was simply marvelous and (sorry to use this word so often) strikingly beautiful; and the film grabs you in literally within the first seconds and doesn’t let up. I do sadly ponder if I will feel this same overwhelming feeling with a second or third viewing, if the movie’s success is based solely on the emotion of a given scene, or if it has some dodgy editing and thus doesn’t flow well. But mostly, I know that I love this movie, and I know that I haven’t been this into a movie in a while. Splendid, splendid job, everyone involved. I honestly will be one of the first in line for a (hopefully) sequel.

Blomkempt stated in a recent Entertainment Weekly that he wanted D9 to be as "un-Hollywood" as he could make it. He succeeded. There's not the typical Hollywood happy ending, things don't happen just for the conveinence to the script, and even what I wager we can call our protagonist shows signs of not being very heroic, being instead rather self-centered and looking only to reunite with his family. The much-talked about visual effects is one thing, but it really is secondary to the story of opportunity and hope for the prawns (and even social invasion, as per the military collective eviction).

I can’t recommend District 9 enough. Don’t bother with Funny People or G-Force or G.I. Joe, this is the movie to see.

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