Sunday, January 10, 2010

“District 9” – Humans suck.

When I advised you about watching only theatrical trailers to avoid spoiling a movie, I wasn’t saying that just to hear myself talk. I also practice what I preach and I have never been more glad than with “District 9.” The first trailer told virtually nothing about the film, only that there were aliens on Earth, they looked like insects, and spoke a crazy language that requires subtitles. There was no hint at what the plot was or who was in the film and all you see besides an alien in an interrogation room (it had its faced blurred, which was even better) is a large alien ship hanging over a city. This was perfect for anyone who enjoys science fiction and leads your imagination to run wild. As a matter of fact, I was convinced that it was a preview for “Ender’s Game” until the title popped up.

So, every time a commercial for “District 9” came on, I muted it and turned my head, or changed the channel. Thus, I avoided learning anything more about the movie until actually watching it. I’m very glad I did because since seeing the movie, I’ve seen the commercials and they would have spoiled so much of it for me. I hope you did the same thing, because it was very enjoyable to be in suspense for much of the film. I didn’t even know what the title meant going into it.

Twenty years ago, an alien ship arrived and decided to park itself over Johannesburg, South Africa. By the way, you don’t know how refreshing it is that the aliens didn’t visit the USA or United Kingdom like every other alien movie. Though, based on the extremely negative portrayal of humans, this may have been deliberate for many reasons (I’ll get to that in a moment). The aliens make no attempts to communicate, so the humans decide to cut into the ship. They discover about a million aliens, who seem to be starving, so they transport the aliens to some shelters on the ground in order to “help” them. If you watch the news at all, you know how good we are at helping people (we always have good intentions, but start before truly realizing the cost; sound familiar?).

The area is quickly fenced off and militarized, becoming District 9, and tensions between the two races gradually escalate over the next twenty years. Finally, the humans have had enough of their alien neighbors and decide to relocate them two hundred and fifty miles outside of the city. Meanwhile, the company that runs the security for the city (MNU), as well as District 9, has been trying to crack the aliens’ technology and discovered that only alien biology can activate it.

If you haven’t noticed yet, this film is filled with parallels to events that have occurred in the past and are occurring now. As it turns out, the film is based on events occurring during the apartheid in an area of Cape Town called District 6. However, it’s very easy to draw parallels with the current wars in the Middle East, past events dealing with segregation in America, WWII internment/concentration camps, illegal immigration, the forced spread of religion, and even human bungling of humanitarian efforts. It’s probably best you don’t think too hard about that stuff because you’ll probably end up crying for nineteen hours and give up on the entire human race. Anyway…

This is where our main character, Wikus, comes in. He is married to his boss’s daughter, so he is tabbed to run the relocation operation. He is also a bumbling, naïve, fool, so it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. I have no idea where they found this actor (Sharlto Copley), but it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. As he is handing out eviction notices, he opens an alien container and is sprayed in the face with a black liquid. As the day runs out, he falls ill and ends up in the hospital. When he wakes up, he discovers that his arm has transformed to a prawn (that’s the slang term for the aliens) appendage and is quickly captured by MNU. From this point on, the film becomes pure action formula, as Wikus is trying to stay alive and help one of the aliens (renamed Christopher Johnson; genius) get back to the ship.

You might think the movie devolves into a series of explosions and running from there, which it does, but not in a bad way. Wikus just wants to get back to his wife and Christopher just wants to rescue his people. Christopher tells Wikus that he can return him to normal, which convinces Wikus to help him. I’ll stop now, as I’ve already given away a lot of the movie.

At this point, you are probably wondering if there is any reason to go see this film. There really is, even though I’ve basically told you you’ll hate the human race. Considering the low budget ($30 million), the special effects are really good. The aliens seem very real and the scenes containing humans and aliens are seamless, not to mention the detail in the makeup and exploding bodies (trust me). In fact, the only complaint I have about the visuals are the insistence on using a hand-held camera to make it seem more real. I understand the reasons behind this, but it really takes away from all the work being done for the action scenes (or hides the lack of work, for some movies).

On that note, you should know that this film is presented in documentary form. Splashed throughout the film are interviews with people talking about Wikus and the events in past tense, which is also why they used the hand-held camera. The film works this way, but would have been just as good without the documentary angle.

Back to my point, you will feel for Wikus by the time the film is over. You will be disgusted by him at first, but you may shed a tear or two for him by the end. Don’t be embarrassed if you do, but you might worry about yourself if you don’t. After all, our track record isn’t something to be proud of.

Rating: As a throwback to the stories of Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven (among others), you will not be disappointed. Only a human who is dead inside would ask for any money back.

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