I'm done taking my pot shots at Avatar. There's no sense in it, when I've already seen two science fiction films that in any other year would take the "best" list. It's only appropriate that District 9's Blu-Ray opens with a trailer for Moon, another movie destined to be one of my favorite films of 2009. But we'll get to Moon again next week. For now, I want to talk about the newest arrival of GREAT MOVIES, the Peter Jackson production of Neill Blomkamp's District 9.
The story concerns a spaceship that, for lack of a better term, stalls out over Johannesburg, South Africa. After rescuing the ailing passengers, the aliens - nicknamed "Prawns" because of their physical resemblance - are herded into a walled-off slum called District 9. The Multi-Nations Unit (MNU) confiscates their weaponry and technology, and a functional second class develops over the next twenty years. Anyone familiar with South African politics in the 1980s is going to notice some parallels here.
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a weasley MNU representative who enters District 9 with orders to con the Prawns into willingly evicting themselves, in order to be shipped to another ghetto outside of Johannesburg. To say that he meets resistance is an understatement, but it's nothing compared to an accidental exposure to alien liquid when Wikus interrupts Prawn Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope)'s plans to escape Earth.
By now you've seen the ads and some of you are probably still thinking that the film is another in the line of "Found Footage" movies, like Diary of the Dead or Cloverfield. To be sure, District 9 begins that way, with pieced together "documentary" footage punctuated by talking head interviews. For the first twenty minutes or so, it really seems like that's how the film is going to play out, but something weird happens. The subjective "documentary" camera turns into the objective third-person camera a few too many times, and almost imperceptibly, District 9 switches from "found footage" to narrative.
One of the many things I appreciated about District 9, which incidentally is also a variation on the "stranger who infiltrates us and then becomes us" that so many take Avatar to task for, is that Wikus never behaves altruistically. As late as the third act, when he has the chance to really help Christopher Johnson out, a change in plans causes him to nearly ruin the entire effort to restart the Prawn ship, just because Wikus is too selfish to put his own interests aside. Admittedly, if I was (SPOILER) turning into an alien and they only hope I had was suddenly pushed back three years, I might behave selfishly too, but it was refreshing that even as Wikus develops as a character, he never simply devolves into the "good guy" type.
I'm quite impressed that Blomkamp made District 9 on a 30 million dollar budget (compared to Terminator: Salvation's 200 million, for example), because with the exception of one or two shots, the Prawn look pretty convincing in the film. The ship always looks real, both the always hovering mother ship and the smaller escape vessel you see later in the film. Wikus' transformation is handled (mostly? totally?) practically, which really adds to the audience's ability to believe this change is happening - and painful. It may be as disgusting and painful of a slow transformation as I've seen since David Cronenberg's The Fly.
Speaking of disgusting, I might warn some sensitive viewers away from this excellent movie, if only because District 9 is an exceedingly violent film. It's not just the alien weaponry, which among other things causes people to explode (and frequently splatter against the camera), but also the tenor of sequences involving the Nigerians who exploit Prawns and try to steal their "power". You see, only Prawns can use their weaponry, so the Nigerian gang boss has been killing them and eating their limbs in an attempt to usurp their abilities. When he meets Wikus, with his alien hand and ability to fire the guns, he immediately plans to do the same to him.
I'll spare you any more spoilers or information. There are no less than a dozen reviews that focus on the relationship between District 9 and Apartheid, so forgive me if I leave that well dry. Needless to say, the parallels are there, as well as a number of other interesting comments about how information is perceived and delivered, and how that deviates from reality. Additionally, the acting is uniformly great and really helps sell the reality of District 9's world. It certainly doesn't hurt that Blomkamp adapted District 9 from his short film, Alive in Joburg:
Blomkamp's feature version is as assured and well put together as Duncan Jones' Moon, and it's going to be tough going deciding which of them I'm more likely to watch first. At any rate, we're lucky to have such a good year for science fiction, horror, comedy, and drama. The consistency of really good to great movies may seem like less than 2008, but I'd argue that the tops of this year are every bit as good as the top movies of last year. More on that next week.