17 August 2009
First Impressions: District 9
Hey now! That was a fun post-less fortnight, wasn't it? Sorry about that one, folks, we'll get in the full swing of things shortly here.
If anyone has seen or read reviews of "District 9" he or she should know it is a superb movie. It's really unlike anything else being offered this summer and should stand out pretty well as Neill Blomkamp's stand-out freshman effort. There's a lot to think about and analyze here, so stay with me. Spoilers abound.
The first first impression I really had from this flick was the intensity. It holds nothing back really. Not only violence, but emotional peaks, anger, racism is tremendous. This is not the world of Transformers. This is a realistic world with real problems and brutal outcomes. It's read like a real news feed of a slummed-out Third World village instead of a glossed over "Star Trek" (2009)-like future, or even a nostalgia and atmosphere-obsessed "Terminator" (2009) ordeal. The most unnerving things to me were the subtle moments, like a sweaty Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) horrifically pulling out fingernails or teeth, or the reveal of his Martian arm. It's full of these unnerving moments that pull it apart from other more fluffy popcorn summer fests. I commend this.
The effects were also very subtle and not overblown and extravagant. There has to be some inevitable comparisons to "Moon" (2009) in this regard, but they were both well done on modest budgets. The only major complaint I had would be the final spaceship take off, which surprised me that they could nail the aliens so well and not the mechanical stuff. It's an incredible dirty, used style that I've never seen before. If "Star Wars" (1977) first introduced us to the idea of a "used" future, then "District 9" shows us that not all aliens will be benevolent, clean, or frankly even that intelligent. The aliens can also be impoverished, Third World style. It's a pretty rad thought, which the effects, from the giant mothership over the city to even one man's slow transmogrification, were splendid.
I'll admit I was starting to be annoyed with the Documentary-type footage at the start, although the movie kind of gave up the premise, if not the style in a very smooth fashion. It was cool how Blomkamp used some if it to his advantage in establishing some character very early on, from the gruff mercenary pushing the camera away, to Wikus concerned about his infection appearing on tape. The interviews were a pretty ingenious way of establishing a lot of the world as well. If the whole picture had turned into a weird Mockumentary-type affair, though, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, and I'm glad the flick quit the majority of it when it did.
Alrighty, now for the real meat of this picture. I love the idea of aliens coming to Earth and landing in South Africa. What a warm, loving, accepting choice of nations. Apartheid is clearly the intent of the filmmakers, and from what I've been reading recently, the treatment of the Prawns is not dissimilar to the real treatment of blacks in the country, down to the forced relocation of many residents from District 6 in Cape Town in the late 1960s and 70s.
The trick is that throughout much of this movie the Prawns are seen as sub-human. They arrived impoverished and sickly, and instead of help, mankind kept them down. It's an interesting response as our conditioned excitement and adornment we should have felt towards the space visitors turned into disappointment and shame. It's like finding out your father who you thought was a pilot turns out to be a flight attendant. There's going to be some decades of mental anguish for that kind of thing.
So there's basically all these immigrant rejects that are mooching off the country, and really, the hatred and fear of scary monsters who kill people and eat cat food seems less like racism and more justified in the minds of a mild-mannered human. This had become so ingrained in the collective conscience of their human neighbors that Wikus has no qualms about treating them as lower-beings, tricking and forcing them to vacate their homes under the pretense of a better life. It's unfortunate then, that his punishment should be to lose his humanity, as there are clearly many many others who treat the Prawns much worse (ie, subjecting them to gruesome experimentation, vivisection, testing weapons on them).
The essence of the movie then, is that it is extremely hard, even sitting in my nice American suburban home here, to imagine what it could be like living in a slum like that, literally hungry enough to eat a pig face. It's that hurdle then, to get over my own pretensions to identify that that tortured Prawn (read: black South African [stand in for any oppressed Third Worlder]) is still a conscious, thinking, rational animal with feelings and dreams of its own. It's tough to have that sympathy for a violent, egg-laying, raw meat-eating monster with very very foreign concepts of land ownership, family, and living standards. It's the hurdle "District 9" challenges us with, and frankly, something I'm sure I wouldn't be able to handle if I was in Wikus' shoes or Bryan Christiansen's shoes.
So let's move on to Wikus himself then, who is a great character and the core of the movie. I've read a lot of criticism about his selfishness and supposedly unlikeablity as a character. This is bullshit. Why the hell must we completely identify with every fucking character that's put on screen these days. I read the same criticisms of "Observe and Report" (2009) and "Funny People" (2009). The world is messy and gross and mean, and all three protagonists in these movies do not deal with it well and make an incredible amount of selfish decisions and mistakes. Does that make for an insufficient story? I think of "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Goodfellas" (1990) which are incredible movies because they fully explore the deplorable facets of our human nature within the basic desire to do good (by their own reckoning) and follow their dreams (like America). Is Ronnie Barnhardt date raping his obsession any worse than Jake LaMotta beating his brother? I have no idea, but both show where humanity can go when tempted with power (or delusion) and the guilt (or shameful non-guilt) that can come from it. And yes, I just compared Seth Rogen to Robert De Niro, deal with it. "District 9" is no different in some regards to the personality defects of the main character.
Wikus is essentially forced to become what not only he, but the world most detests as a vermin, lower being, the Prawn. Naturally, he is a bit upset. One of the weird flaws I found with this movie is in this core premise, I have no idea how alien gasoline can turn humans into aliens. Whatever, but his plight is essentially that of a prominent middle-class white guy who has a bangin' wife and a new job promotion, suddenly turning black in the middle of Apartheid South Africa. Racism, personal selfishness aside, that should legitimately scare the shit out of anyone. His desperation throughout the transformation is very warranted, going to such lengths as cutting off his own fingers, seeking cures with shifty go-betweens, and finally, dealing directly with the Prawn who made him who he is. The finger-cutting scene in particular seems to show that Wikus cannot simply excise this thing from his body. Prawns are no longer foreign, they are him. Indefinitely.
The key moment comes when Christopher Johnson (great alien name that I made fun of until a friend of mine pointed out to me how much we changed immigrant names coming into this country) declines an immediate reversal cure for a three-year hiatus while he attempts to rescue his own people. At this Wikus completely turns on the Prawn, demanding a cure over the fate of 2 million oppressed people. To understand this, the average moviegoer must understand that a lifelong mentality of Prawns as a lower form of life allows Wikus to easily make this decision, even as he is turning into one. When you agree that something isn't human (or equal to human), it becomes much easier to hurt it. This is a major justification for slavery, Apartheid, imperialism, about any major injustice in history, really. It's no different here, especially coming from someone who so closely worked with the Prawns and knew how degrading their life was. This racism actually facilitates his decision further, knowing that for the next three years he would have to live in that status, forgoing his hot wife, job promotion, absolutely everything his life had been leading towards. Even Dudley Do-Right would have had some struggle with this news!
So when his ship is shot down and Chris is about to die, Wikus finally realises that there is no turning back. This is shown best as his eyes start to change. He's really at the transition point here when he's seeing the world as half human/half Prawn. Compared to the finger-cutting scene earlier as well, at this point, he can't cut out an eye. This is his redemption and acceptance of his horrid fate (stages of grief anyone?), it may have been late, but it's his only time in the film to be a hero, and it's pretty awesome. Lots of great death scenes here as he rages in the Mechano-Bot across District 9. The ending is pretty ambiguous towards whether Wikus is saved from Prawnhood, whether or not Chris ever returns, and if he does, as one of the interviewees states, he will return with help for his people or with destruction and revenge for humanity. It's tough to call Wikus' fate. I mean, sure it would be nice for him to receive his own human life back, but at the same time, becoming the Prawn is the key to learning the ultimate lesson in racism and judgment. Perhaps this wouldn't be undone with his transmogrification back to humanity, but again, this is pretty ambiguous.
So all in all I'm pretty pumped about a solid sci-fi that's not a sequel, doesn't have insane mindless explosions or ghost clones or a $200 million budget. It's been doing well so far so by critics and box office alike, so maybe there will be more of this type of film in the future. Or just Iron Man 2 next year to look forward to. Downey Decade baby...
Also the guns are real cool.