Archive for August, 2009

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Review: District 9

August 17, 2009

What a difference a brilliant campaign makes.

District 9, the feature film debut of South African director/effects whiz Neill Blomkamp, had every advantage a small budget, sci-fi flick could ask for; fanboy royalty Peter Jackson’s discerning eye, incredible buzz coming out of Comic-Con and a viral marketing campaign that rivals The Blair Witch Project‘s in terms of creatively blending reality and fiction.

In fact, this movie’s status was consummated well before it went on to general release. Consider after only its first weekend it sits at #26 on the IMDB Top 250 list (above Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver). More and more often the filmgoing experience includes what you make of a film before you even see it and this campaign had us expecting a revolutionary work of genius.

Fortunately most, but not all of the hype surrounding District 9 is well-deserved.

The premise is definitely intriguing and well-executed. We’re immediately dropped into Johannesburg documentary-style, where a gigantic spaceship has parked itself, hovering ominously above the city, apparently incapacitated. Curious earthlings discover a million languishing aliens on board and provide them a refugee camp in what appears to be a fenced-in landfill. The implications of apartheid are made right away through the interviews given by local residents who take none too kindly to the crustacean-esque creatures they seethingly dub “prawns”. Science fiction has long been a cache for good social commentary and in this respect, District 9 does not disappoint. So far, so good.

First-timer Sharlto Copley impresses as Wikus Van De Merwe, an awkward, fragile bureaucrat whose job it is to serve eviction notices to the aliens as the multinational he works for prepares to move them to a new camp. The multinational, in addition to its public humanitarian efforts, privately schemes to learn how the aliens’ advanced weapons work and Blomkamp crafts several nightmarish corporate R&D scenarios involving alien captives. For good measure he also makes sure to install a gang of heavily-armed Nigerian traders meddling in the periphery of this society and gives us at least one truly badass villain to despise. All the elements are there for the explosive alien uprising we’re promised…one which never comes. Over the course of the screening I had to unwillingly accept the reality that this movie was never going to be about aliens, only about us. Sigh.

That becomes the film’s sole flaw, that it creates only one alien character worth mentioning (or two if you’re feeling generous enough to include a cute-ish, infant alien) out of a supposed million. Imagine making a film about real apartheid in South Africa and only including one black character worth mentioning… So Wikus becomes our pseudo-victim and while his journey forces him into an unexpected kinship with the aliens, taking him from corporate dweeb, to desperate man on the run, to battle-ready savior, the film undermines its true victims by too-often ignoring them.

District 9‘s action and effects are visually impressive and well-directed by the young, talented Blomkamp. The pacing of the action is a little unbalanced with the front end of the film holding out a bit too long in my opinion and as always the trailer gives away far too many of the best bits but at least they don’t come the way you’d necessarily expect. At one point I was convinced we’d reached the climax of the movie only to be pleasantly surprised that there was more suffering to be endured. How many movies can make you say that!

It’s a rare summer action film that tries this hard to make its audience contemplate such recognizable injustices let alone successfully make them into an entertaining piece of pop culture that transcends its sci-fi trappings. I’ve spent more time dissecting this film than any other this year and it all started with a brilliant campaign.

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