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Monday, August 17, 2009

REVIEW - "District 9" (2009)

Just when I thought this weak summer had nothing more to offer. Of course, when I say “more,” what I mean is something with substance and a show of talent. “District 9,” at the very minimum, is an illustration of new talent oozing with relevance. The masses are correct: Neill Blomkamp is a name to watch for. If “District 9” is any indication, Blomkamp’s future looks very promising indeed.

The film opens with a brief history about the aliens reaching Earth. Labeled as workers with missing leadership, the aliens are “given” a home on Earth outside Johannesburg, South Africa. After twenty-years in their slum home of District 9, MMU, the aliens’ governing body on Earth, decides to relocate them further away from the city. During the process a strange alien container infects relocation operative Wikus van der Merwe; the event spirals him in to the greatest fears of his life and the revelation of the aliens’ salvation.

“District 9” sets itself up as a docudrama, but continues with linear storytelling filling the gaps between the camcorder and security footage. What sounds like a pathetic attempt at innovation actually joins the two styles seamlessly. For those in fear of keeping up with jarring camera instability, fear not. The documentary style is steadier than most Michael Bay films and while the cinematography doesn’t have the cleverness of “Cloverfield’s” handheld shots it frames everything believably for every any given situation. (Security recordings, handheld interviews, P.O.V. shots.) Unfortunately Blomkamp’s photography slowly seeps in to fast summer action shooting, sporting all the cliché framing and filters we’ve become accustomed to when watching a soldier walk in slow motion.

But enough with my film-student wanking of Blomkamp’s intriguing style. Is the movie any good outside a photography major’s knowledge? “District 9” is, without a doubt, everything that makes up good science fiction: Originality, spectacle, well-developed characters and a large mirror reflecting a critique on the human condition. Like a long episode of “The Twilight Zone,” “District 9” provokes wonder and promotes thought.

Wikus, who begins as the most despicable offenders of human rights, (even though these creatures aren’t exactly human) discovers the humanity in these aliens when he’s forced to hide among them. Though his infection curiously reeks of Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly,” it’s (thankfully) used as an outlet to learn more about the visitors. Befriending a rather lovable alien, Christopher, Wikus’s selfish needs grow in to a compassion that inspires the type of aggression needed to fight a world littered with prejudice and poverty.

Set in South America, a country that triggers all the images “District 9” produces, it’s interesting to feel concern for these otherworldly creatures in their cramped slums. The footage of aliens facing street executions and torture is a vague reminder of events that happen throughout that particular continent. As Wikus begins to feel for these creatures there’s a bitterness left with me. Is the film’s reality so powerful because there’s only a handful of Wikus in the audience? If it at all? I feel as if the irony behind caring for these fictional creatures was purposefully left by Blomkamp to be pondered over. If this idea goes over some people’s heads then at least the subtext of valuing all individuals is left loud and clear.

After struggling with the images and characters that grace the film’s stronger messages, the epic ends with what we expect in modern science fiction: A climatic blowout of visuals and explosions. While the CGI was already impressive throughout, topping the rather poorly aged renders of Gollum and Jar-Jar Binks, the finale flexes all the right muscles to keep the thrills sharp and the multiplexes’ arm rests in business. Although it could use a little editing, “District 9” delivers in ways very few summer flicks did this year. (If any.)

It’s not that “District 9” is a perfect movie or even the greatest science fiction story ever. It’s the fact it clings to what little originality is left in Hollywood and pushes it to the forefront of mainstream ideas. Connecting with age-old human issues and using it to create a very engrossing world, “District 9” is haunting and stimulating. But if you really want a one word sum-up of "District 9," here it goes: "Cool!" Blomkamp has some interesting potential. I look forward to his future endeavors.

*** out of ****

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