Friday, January 15, 2010
I was a little bit hesitant to watch District 9, for a couple of reasons. First of all, a movie that receives the hype it did usually disappoints, as it just can’t live up to the buzz. That’s why I watch movies like Supercroc. You don’t go in with the idea it’s going to change your life, or even be competent. The other reason is that it was well known District 9 was a “message” film, and filmmakers are generally terrible about doing such, getting overwhelmed by the idea of making their point and forgetting that people are irritated when they are preached to. (This is why Spike Lee infuriates me. He obviously possesses great talent, but he will make a movie that eloquently makes its case against racism or some other social ill for 90 minutes, then stop the movie dead so a character can deliver a “racism is bad” rant, as if you are too stupid to understand that from the rest of the movie. Then again, I do watch movies like Supercroc, so maybe he is right.)
Despite all this, which caused me to miss District 9 while it was at the theater, I finally got around to watching on DVD, and I was pleasantly surprised. While it is not a movie that will change your life or the entire future of movie-making, it is well-done, intelligent and entertaining. The message is there, but presented well enough it doesn’t seem like a sermon.
Twenty years ago a giant space craft reached Earth and hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa. Humans were eventually able to gain access to the ship, which they found to be filled with insect-like aliens, who are given the derogatory nickname “prawns” due to their resemblance to shrimp. The prawns seem to be workers/slaves, and whoever was piloting the ship has disappeared somehow. The prawns are taken to Earth, where they are segregated into “District 9”, a garbage-strewn ghetto. There, they are exploited both by the government and by gangs, who control them due to their addiction to cat food, and use them to try to get the secrets of the alien technology, which can only be used by the prawns, as it is somehow keyed to their DNA.
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a mostly dim bureaucrat in an agency tasked with managing the aliens. He is given the task of overseeing the eviction f the prawns to a new district, ostensibly to get them better living conditions, but really to discover more about the technology and the aliens’ other secrets. Wikus’ life changes when he is exposed to an alien compound which wreaks drastic changes on him, and he is forced to switch sides.
The parallel to apartheid is so obvious as to not be worth comment, but the filmmaker does something interesting. The aliens are shown to us as being ugly (to our eyes), somewhat dumb (or at least horribly naïve negotiators), and irrationally violent, so our sympathies in the early part of the film lie mostly with our fellow humans, even in scenes where a grinning Wikus destroys an alien “nursery”, including the infant prawns inside. When Wikus is forced to confront the fact there may be more to the aliens than he realized, we are being pushed to the same revelation, which allows us to “experience” the message of the film without being explicitly lectured as to what it is. Very effective.
Wikus is an interesting character. Not overly bright and certainly not given to deep thought, he is a mid-level bureaucrat. This type of protagonist dominates Russian literature, and appears often in some Asian books, but The Bureaucrat is rarely seen as an archetype in American fiction/film. We are more inclined to make the protagonist of a film like this one a crusading attorney, or something similarly higher class, perhaps because we see ourselves as more than we really are. Nevertheless, by containing our flaws, Wikus serves as an effective stand-in for the viewer.
The movie is not only about a message, as the second half becomes pretty much a sci-fi action movie. It keeps your interest as it takes some interesting turns. I highly recommend this film.