Wednesday, 17 February 2010

District 9

Lowdown: Extraterrestrials being treated like vermin in South Africa. And one white man, too.
How often can I boast to have the privilege of watching high quality science fiction? Not fantasy, not a film about some comics like war in space, but rather proper hardcore science fiction? Well, given the last example I can think of is Children of Men, my answer would be once in a few years. I therefore have to thank District 9 for breaking this drought; but it doesn't only break the drought, it does it with style.
District 9 starts in documentary style, shot in hand held video and telling us the "real life" story of an alien spaceship that appeared all of a sudden over Johannesburg during 1986. Eventually, the spaceship was boarded by humans, who found pretty ugly looking and helpless aliens in there. The people didn't know what to do with those aliens, so they housed them in an enclosed Johannesburg slam called District 9 where they pretty much formed their own anarchic community while humans regard them as vermin ("prawns"). In short, the aliens have become the new nigger.
Twenty years have gone by and the alien problem is only bigger: they breed, they're a pest, they threaten to take jobs away from humans, and they occupy valuable real estate. What can be done about them? Well, the company established by humans to take care of the aliens has a solution: they will evict the aliens into a new, purpose built refugee camp - District 10. We join things as Wikus, the guy put in charge of issuing the eviction notices, is going along to issue them accompanied by armed mercenaries. But things go wrong for Wikus: he touches something he shouldn't, and the next thing he knows he's developing an alien hand.
Which is not very handy when the secrets of the aliens' weapons technology, activated only by alien genes, are so sought after by the earth's weapon companies. Companies like the one Wikus is working for. They take him in and look forward to cutting him into little pieces in order to uncover the weapons' secrets; he has to cooperate with the aliens he regarded as vermin up until not that long ago in order to escape from his former friends, family and co-workers.
Cleverly done, District 9 starts mixing cinematic looking scenes into what started as a documentary as the film develops. The documentary bits tell you the things the public knows, as in the things it is allowed to know by big money; the movie like scenes fill in the gap for you with the stories behind the scenes. Add that on top of the clever analogy between the way the aliens are treated and the way blacks were treated in South Africa, and the way blacks still live in poor slams while the rich live in nice suburbia, and you can see what the film is trying to say through Wikus: District 9 tells us that those discriminating against some parts of the population - aliens, blacks - will not hesitate to turn on you the next day.
District 9 is not only clever, it is also very entertaining. The way it is edited and the way the action scenes go have quite a lot of the Paul Verhoeven touch about them; in particular, there can be no doubt about the role Robocop played in inspiring District 9. You can fault District 9 for having certain aspects where originality is lacking but I won't do it; I don't mind a film inspired by Verhoeven, one of my favorite directors. If anything, I'd like to see more films do it as well as District 9 does.
Unlike most of its peers coming to you from the USA, District 9 cannot be said to fall into the typical cliche trap. Its hero, Wikus, is a very compromised character; never do you think he's the ultimate nice hero and never can you trust him. He is, for all intents and purposes, a real human being. And when was the last time we've had such a person take a lead role in popular American cinema.
Best scenes: There are numerous scenes where Wikus is at critical turning points where he needs to do what was previously the unthinkable in order to survive. Sometimes he does the right thing, most of the time he doesn't, but each of those scenes is pure delight.
Technical assessment: Picture quality varies as the documentary scenes are meant to look low quality video while the cinematic scenes are meant to look high contrast. The sound is not the best we've ever heard but it's smart and very effective in the use of all channels, making District 9 a home theater delight.
Overall: District 9 is science fiction to the core, and my favorite type of science fiction at that. It's the entertaining type that also tries to tell you something about the world we live in through its extreme setup. A film like that deserves the ultimate kudos; I therefore rate District 9 at 5 out of 5 stars.

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