New Sci-Fi Lives Up to Comic-Con Buzz
Wow! What a week. I screened three movies that all have a shot of making my ten best list. The week began with Hayo Miyazaki’s “Ponyo,” continued with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (the misspelling is deliberate), and finished with the Peter Jackson produced “District 9” (opening August 14 throughout San Diego).
I’ve always been a fan of Peter Jackson (going back to “Bad Taste,” “Meet the Feebles,” and “Dead Alive”). So the mere fact that he was producing “District 9” peaked [okay that misspelling was not deliberate and thanks to a reader for pointing out that it should be "piqued"] my interest. Then at the Comic-Con panel last month I saw footage from the film and it immediately moved up on my list of most anticipated films. (BTW, “Kick-Ass” moved up that list as well based on the Comic-Con panel footage.) The footage looked great from a technical point of view and the story idea of an alien ship hovering above Johannesburg with a million aliens relegated to refugee camps on the ground sounded great.
The film is based on a short called “Alive in Joberg” by South African-born visual effects artist and music video director Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp had been working on a different kind of alien tale with Jackson – bringing “Halo” to the big screen – and when that fizzled they switched gears and came up with an expanded version of the short film. Made on what would be considered a Hollywood shoestring budget of $30 (for comparison “Wolverine,” “Terminator Salvation,” “Transformers 2,” and “G.I. Joe” are all in the $150 to $200 million budget range), they have managed to deliver a kick-ass sci-fi actioner that’s also drenched in satire and social commentary.
“District 9” wastes no time getting started and then it never slows down. Using a faux documentary style, the film jumps right into the thick of it. We first meet Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley in a cleverly changing performance), a nerdy-looking pencil pusher at the MNU Department of Alien Affairs. Because his father-in-law is a higher up, he ends up getting placed in charge of an operation to move a million aliens from one refugee camp to another. He has to inform the aliens and get their signatures on the appropriate forms in order to move them from District 9 to District 10, which has been misleadingly dubbed “Sanctuary Park” (audiences might see a connection to the way the U.S. government treated Katrina victims and placed them in the ridiculously named “Renaissance Village”).
Intercut with Wikus’ footage are interviews with a variety of "experts" and other individuals connected to the story about the aliens. We discover that the alien ship arrived 20 years ago and parked itself above Johannesburg. When first contact was made, the aliens were found to be malnourished and confused, like worker bees without a queen to guide them. The aliens – human-sized, insect-like creatures not unlike David Cronenberg’s Brudlefly creation – were quickly relegated to refugee camps. As one might expect, they were not welcomed by the human population that derogatorily referred to them as “prawns.” On earth, the aliens developed an obsession for cat food and became victimized by Nigerian black marketers.
We get all this information quickly and effectively in just a few opening scenes. We also see the alien creatures right from the start without any overblown build up. In fact the film as a whole plays out in a fairly realistic manner despite the fantastical elements of the plot. The MNU’s attempt to move all the aliens triggers riots and rebellion. As we follow Wikus into the field, he confronts aliens and confiscates illegal goods. One of those items, however, is a canister that explodes. Wikus gets exposed to some alien goo that infects him and produces some very unpleasant and terrifying side effects that have the unexpected consequence of making him a highly desirable lab specimen for the government. And that’s all I’m gonna say about the plot other than it moves swiftly and smartly, keeping the audience thoroughly entertained and engaged.
“District 9” takes a lot of familiar elements – aliens on earth, evil government/corporation conspiracy, social commentary about the immigrant experience, segregation, and xenophobia – but allows us to view them from a fresh perspective. The aliens in this case are not evil or invading but rather lost, displaced, and angry at their plight. The bottom line for them is that they just want to return home. The conspiracy for once doesn’t involve the U.S. or other major super power but instead South Africa, and by placing the story in South Africa there’s an extra political charge to the separate and unequal living conditions forced upon the aliens. The South African setting does not come across like a gimmick but rather as something organic since Blomkamp was born in South Africa. His writing partner Terri Tatchell, although not from South Africa, does hail from Canada where there are also charged cultural divisions. So together they create a film in which the cultural divisions and tensions feel very real and deeply rooted.
Blomkamp begins the film like a mock documentary/reality show but then allows for strictly dramatic scenes to play out. He works with cinematographer Trent Opaloch to create a visual style that plays down the fantastical elements of the story. So the massive ship hovering over the city and the aliens are just part of the fabric of everyday life in Johannesburg, and that makes it easier for us to buy into the alternate universe that the film creates – it’s a world that feels very real and lived in. Blomkamp also mixes real news footage with mock reality footage to give the film the feel of a 24-hour news channel. He also incorporates what looks like surveillance cameras that seem omnipresent in the city. The result is a film that plays effectively on the way reality TV blurs the line between reality and fiction, and also on the way the media can manipulate images. So in a world where everything is manufactured to look “real” how can you tell when you’re being duped?
Visually the aliens are not as cute as E.T. (thank goodness!) or as intimidating as Alien or Predator. They are human enough to allow us to empathize with their plight but dangerous enough to create tension in the story. It’s also great that we see them almost immediately and that they exist in large quantities in the film. That means that they are truly integrated into the story and no longer standout as a special effect for us to marvel at – they are instead characters in the story. They are well designed and executed by New Zealand’s visual effects company WETA (which Jackson had a part in founding and bringing to international attention). The creatures combine insect and crustacean anatomy and at times recall David Cronenberg’s DNA splicing of fly and human from “The Fly” to deliver some genuinely uncomfortable scenes. Viewers should be forewarned that there are some graphic scenes of violence -- the squeamish might want to stay away. But for many fans of sci-fi action, the R rating and its accompanying increased intensity are most welcome. This ain’t no kiddie film!
I want to commend not only Blomkamp but also his crew for bringing all the elements of “District 9” together in such fine fashion. Co-writer Tatchell and editor Julian Clarke pack so much information into the opening of the film but do so in a way that does not overwhelm us and that is not confusing. A snide remark about Wikus’ promotion and his father-in-law defines a lot quickly about the character and the company he works for. Similarly, Wikus’ casual destruction of an alien nest of eggs reveals much about the status of the aliens on earth. Blomkamp is efficient in his storytelling with scenes both advancing the story and revealing background details on characters or the culture. Then layered into that is often biting satire and genuine emotion. We actually find ourselves caring for not only Wikus but for a couple of the aliens as well. That the film stirs more than just an adrenaline rush is an unexpected perk. You might also be surprised by the amount of humor in the film. But it's not jokey gags or smartalecky one-liners. Instead it's an absurd dark humor that never pulls you out of the story.
“District 9” (rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language) delivers on all fronts – it’s an imaginative sci-fi tale, a gritty actioner, a dazzling effects film, a compelling dramatic story, a biting satire, and a flat out exciting piece of pop entertainment. It’s a film that you can get as much or as little out of it as you want. If all you want is grueling action, then you can walk away happy and contented. If you want to find social commentary and criticism, it’s there too but it’s not in your face and it’s not preachy. While Hollywood’s big budget sci-fi films – namely “Terminator Salvation” and “Transformers 2” – have fallen flat, it’s been two indie, low-budget films – “District 9” and the even lower budgeted “Moon” – that have returned sci-fi to a higher plane and have reminded us that science fiction is best when the human element and the storytelling are not forgotten.
Companion viewing: “Brother from Another Planet,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Moon”