A Slice of Fried Gold

Prisms: A District 9 Review

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Science Fiction is a genre that is grossly misunderstood. Very few people accurately grasp its true value as the stereotype of aliens and phasers and teleporting and cheeseball ways typically prevails over any thoughts of it being anything of actual depth. Of course, you could make the argument that quite often science fiction earns the derision it receives. More often than not, even the most well received pieces of science fiction (like 2009's Star Trek) just use the genre conventions strictly to develop new methods to entertain audiences. However, science fiction's true power appears when it is used as a metaphor for real world issues and when creators imbue their thoughts on the world into their project. This happens very rarely, but perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is the Neill Blomkamp's new film District 9.

District 9 posits a version of the world where in 1982 aliens came to Earth, and instead of landing in Manhattan or Paris (as they say in the movie) they came down directly over Johannesburg, South Africa. After days of absolutely no movement, the ship is boarded and what is found is a group of malnourished aliens that are stranded without the ability to leave. Somewhat predictably, the nations of the world decide that the best solution is to set the aliens up in slums within the Johannesburg city limits and the ramifications of that decision are what gives us the core of the movie. The protagonist of the film is Wikus Van De Merwe, an agent of MNU (Multi-National United) and the person that has been tasked with the job of notifying the aliens (called Prawns) that they will need to leave their slums for a new home 240 kilometers from Jo'burg, and during the performing of that task is where the fates of everyone involved suffers a dramatic shift.

What Blomkamp and company do that is so astounding is using the sufferings of the Prawns and the divide between them and the human race as a prism through which we can view our own destructive tendencies related to race, namely South Africa's own past with apartheid. Blomkamp (and many of the other people involved with the film) is a native son of South Africa and someone who lived through apartheid, and you definitely see the parallels between that time and what the Prawns suffer through. Whether it's the signs pasted all over Jo'burg businesses stating the lack of welcome for the Prawns, the sentiments of residents Blomkamp brilliantly shares in short, documentary style interviews, or the point of the outright segregation of the Prawns to what are effectively modern day ghettos from WWII, the film does not let us miss the similarities.

To so closely pigeonhole it as a straight parallel of apartheid would be a mistake though, as it is more a window into the darkest versions of racism. Really, you could substitute any race or group of people that are strongly disliked in the place of the Prawns, and the film would be wholly believable. That Blomkamp uses aliens in lieu of them makes the commentary more palatable to audiences without sacrficing any of the power. Short of Ronald D. Moore's reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, I cannot think of any piece of science fiction that so elegantly layered commentary within the threads of entertainment and dramatic tension.

Even if you completely disregarded the subcontext, this film would be a stunner. With such a powerful message being conveyed, many writers and directors could easily lose sight of making this film basely entertaining but assuredly Blomkamp does not have this problem. From the first minute, this film draws you in and demands your undivided attention. The whole film is told as a retrospective, with various talking heads interjecting in interview segments to dissect the Prawns way of life and the events that are unfolding within the primary story thread, which follows Wikus on his journey as the most wanted man in the world after the events that unfold during the process of evicting the Prawns. Setting the story up in such a way allows it to manifest in a very mysterious and provocative manner, as if it is a beautiful painting that is slowly but surely revealed piece by piece.

Given the films history as what effectively is a spinoff of Peter Jackson's Halo project (that project was unceremoniously dumped after Jackson announced Blomkamp, a no-name at the time, would be directing that film instead of him), you would expect it to be a visual tour de force, and your expectations would be fully realized in this case. From the presentation of the aliens, to the CG work on the effects of the alien weaponry, to even the usage of shaky cam and documentary styled shots, everything is carefully laid out to heighten the dramatic tension and to make everything feel like it is really happening. The utter realism of this film give the already weighty subject more substance and make the whole experience all the more immersive.

One of the most amazing aspects of the film (and this is a film that clearly has many layers of amazing) is that the lead of the film, Sharlto Copley, did not really have any significant acting experience (he had never even appeared in a feature length film) and he mostly improvised his role. Blomkamp knew Copley because Copley had once hired him as a computer graphic designer (when Blomkamp was just 14), and when he started developing the feature (which was based off a short starring Copley he had made originally), he kept him in mind. Given his inauspicious origins, you would think that even a minimally successful performance would be a boon, but Copley gives a fierce and lively performance, ranging from the dorky guy everyone likes to believeable action star scene to scene. His character is not only the protagonist but the on screen manifestation of humanity, as he struggles with his species driven rage and is backed into corners where he has to make despicable decisions. Successfully pulling that off while connecting the character deeply with the viewers would be a feat for the most experienced of actors, and that he did that is all the more impressive.

The last main point I will make about this film is that Blomkamp gives us possibly the only two CG characters (existing in live environments - Pixar doesn't count) in history that truly connect emotionally with his creations Christopher Johnson and his son. These two Prawns give us the perspective of what life is like from their side, as really these are a group of people who want to go home just as badly as humanity wants them to. Their relationship and their burgeoning one with Wikus give the film much of its emotional depth, and Blomkamp handles them with brilliant aplomb.

I could really go on and on about this film. This is without a doubt one of the single biggest masterpieces in the history of science fiction and is truly a unique film, especially given the current state of film (I hope you like remakes and adaptations!). This is possibly the single greatest blockbuster styled film ever made, as it has all of the excitement, action and humor audiences look for, while successfuly layering in an important message and being positively bathed in technical expertise and a keen eye for drama. Effectively, it is as if Blomkamp threw down the gauntlet on the rest of the filmmaking world and challenged them - "You too can be original still. You too can make your movies mean something. You too can entertain and inform simultaneously." The world of film is a better place with films like District 9 out there, and I sincerely hope filmmakers respond to Blomkamp's challenge by striving to make their films mean something as well.

District 9: A


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