August 23, 2009

#033: District 9

I had never even heard about this movie until a few weeks ago when I saw a trailer for it at Bruno. From that very first trailer I could tell I was probably going to see it at the theater. I am not sure why it interested me so much. The trailers show very little about the actual film. You can tell that there are going to be aliens, and they have a big-ass ship floating above a city. You can also gather that the aliens somehow come to live amongst the humans and this is causing some sort of social conflict. Other than that you have no idea what the film is about, or who the actors even are. For those of you who want to maintain your ignorance, you should probably not read the rest of this post. I am definitely not going to spoil anything, but I am going to give a lot more information than what I had before watching it. Some people like to be completely clueless going into a film and I respect that. But I guess those people probably aren't out on the internet reading blogs.

The film starts out with documentary style footage that tells us nothing about where the aliens are from or how they got to Earth. It does however tell us that the ship stalled over the city of Johannesburg South Africa and just sat there. Everybody waited for something to come out, but nothing ever did. Finally, with the eyes of the world watching, the South African government decided to cut their way into the ship and see what was going on. When they entered they found tons of what they described as worker-class aliens starving to death. They were very weak and could not defend themselves. The decision was made to bring them down out of their ship and give them catfood, as well as set up housing for them. This all happened 20 years ago, and the tensions between the aliens and humans have now reached a breaking point. The government has decided the aliens can no longer stay in "District 9" which is a fenced-in slum located in the city of Johannesburg. They must be moved further out of the city so they won't cause anymore problems. We follow the story of Wikus, a somewhat bumbling alien affairs worker who is put in charge evicting the residents of District 9.
District 9 is a great film that does a ton of things right. It was made with less than one fourth of the budget of a normal summer action movie these days... and still looks really really awesome. The lead character is played by an actor who has never been in a movie before. District 9 has this "real" feel to it. I don't really know how to describe it, or how they achieved it, but from the very beginning it felt like all of these things were actually happening. The documentary style footage and the way it was all set up probably had something to do with it. For a sci-fi movie you feel very connected to it from the beginning, like you could actually be there seeing these things happening. There is also this very dark and serious tone to everything. A lot of summer action movies have at least one character who is blatantly there for comic relief. This film does not have that at all, but at the same time it doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't rely on in-your-face jokes to lighten things up. Rather, it subtly works things in that are very clearly meant to be funny. Its almost as if the filmmakers are winking at you and saying, "We know what we are doing here, just enjoy." Distict 9 is also a visceral experience. There are some very brutal gross-out scenes that are almost physically painful to watch. I can't remember the last time that I had that sensation while watching a movie, but it is usually a good sign. They did a great job of building tension and then the film makers take you on a thrill-ride for the last half. I had a lot of fun with this film, and could easily sit down and watch it again. I also really liked how focused this movie was. In contrast with a movie like Transformers from this summer, which has tons of characters and tons of things going on simultaneously, District 9 is very simple. The entire time we follow Wikus around and see the story from only his eyes. It made it very easy to be 100% engaged in the story the entire time. Also, I mentioned the actor had never been in a movie before. Well, he does an amazing job with this film. He is the perfect anti-hero, and he plays this role very well.
There are a few criticisms I had about District 9. My main complaint is mostly determined by expectation. The first 20 minutes of this movie sets up for a sociologically driven film that has a lot of depth. However, they never go down that path. District 9 is content to be a summer action movie, and it isn't going to pretend to be anything different. This filmmaker originally made a 6 minute short film called "Alive In Joburg" which District 9 is based on. You can find it on youtube, and I would recommend watching it whether you have seen District 9 yet or not. It has a lot of similarities to the beginning of District 9. From the short I get the feeling that he wanted to make this serious film that was an allegory for apartheid and racism in general. However, when he gets the money to actually make a full-length film, he uses the same setup to introduce us to a all-out, guns a' blazin, action flick. I am not sure why that disappoints me, but it does. I feel like this film had a chance to be a lot more powerful, but the trade off is that it would have been less enjoyable to watch. I don't know if he had to make concessions to actually get it up on the big screen or not, but it kinda feels that way. I also had some issues with some plot points about how the aliens are portrayed. After thinking about the film a little more, some things just didn't make sense. I still would highly recommend seeing this movie. It is one of the best action movies I have seen in a while. I think you will have a lot of fun with it just as I did.

I just realized that I could have embedded the video for Alive In Joburg right in the post.

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