Saturday, August 22, 2009

"District 9" - spoiler movie review

Going in to see "District 9", I really didn't know anything about the movie. For some time previous, I'd seen the billboards and bus stop ads and such about non-humans being spotted in places and to report them, or that they weren't allowed in certain places. I think maybe I saw a one-sheet at some point, but I'm not even sure about that. I don't think I ever saw a trailer in the theatres - I think I might have seen one TV spot, so I did know that it was about aliens on Earth who were pretty much marooned here. It looked interesting, and the husband really wanted to see it, so ok, we went.

However, we ended up going at a time that I hadn't really expected, so I was totally unprepared. We were out running errands for something else and then ended up going to the movie, so I didn't have Teddy with me. (For those who don't know, "Teddy" is a vampire teddy plush from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" who I generally bring to movies with me when I think there's going to be a lot of tense stuff going on. Since he's soft, I can grip him, saving me from ripping the husband's arm off. Teddy has come in quite handy on many occasions.) I had known that I'd need Teddy for this film, especially after I heard somewhere that the R rating was partially because of scenes of "bloody violence". And here I was, sitting in the theatre without Teddy. Uh oh. (Oh, and there's also "pervasive language". Yeah, they're not kidding. F bombs are dropped left and right pretty much throughout the entire film, sometimes in rapid succession.)

Luckily, since I'm currently carrying around a Vera Bradley purse, which is made of soft cloth, I ended up using that instead. Yeah, I'm sure it would have looked weird to anyone who would have been looking at me, as I was clutching my purse, but it sure helped.

It's a little hard to describe "District 9". Yes, it's a science fiction movie to some degree, but the aliens from outer space are really a plot device. The key is that they're "aliens", foreign to the world in which they find themselves, foreign to the people already living in that location. And to a large degree, people are afraid of and don't want to be around things that are foreign. Their home is very far away, and they look very different, and they speak a different language, but that could be true of many other cultures - theirs just happens to be on another planet.

The often documentary style of the film reminded me a lot of "Cloverfield", including the use of many hand-held cameras. Anyone who has read any of my reviews knows that kind of technique is not a friend to me, and yes, it did bother me in many cases. It wasn't quite as bad as in "Cloverfield" in that I actually watched very little of that movie because of the camera movements. I did see most of this film, though I did look away in parts where the jarring camera was exceptionally bad. But, as with "Cloverfield", I did understand the need for using that device, and it worked very well.

This film is based on a short film called "Alive in Joburg" which "District 9" director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp created back in 2005 which also incorporates much from the childhood that the director spent in South Africa during apartheid.

The movie starts off with an interview with Wikus Van De Merwe, a government official who ends up being our guide through the story. It's then revealed that an alien ship had arrived on Earth 20 years previously, stopping right over Johannesburg, South Africa. After some time, the ship was boarded by U.S. forces and alien creatures were found in squalor conditions. The survivors were moved to District 9, a cordoned-off section on the outskirts of Johannesburg where the aliens were housed in makeshift shacks.

There were many clashes between the aliens and local citizens, and there were many harsh feelings towards the aliens, not just for their presence alone, but for the money being spent to house them.

Government officials have created a new area, District 10, where they want to move the aliens to, which is further away from the populated city. It's advertised as being a nicer complex, but it's really a modern-day version of a concentration camp for the aliens. They decide they need to evict the aliens from their current abodes and come up with the preposterous plan of having the aliens sign forms agreeing to be evicted. Wikus is put in charge of the entire operation.

What starts off as an iffy proposition anyway turns worse when the aliens object to being moved. The government officials are accompanied by armed forces, who show no hesitation at shooting and killing the aliens when they deem necessary, and some of them even enjoy doing it. When one particular alien refuses to be relocated, Wikus decides to threaten to take the alien's child away under the guise of unsafe conditions.

Unbeknown to any of the humans, though, two aliens have been scrounging for the means to get back to their ship. Wikus happens upon the liquid that will power the alien aircraft hidden underground, and he is sprayed with the dark liquid when he opens the cannister. It turns out that the liquid slowly acts to turn him into one of the aliens, and for the remainder of the film, we see the effects on him as he deals with the bureaucracy that he was once proudly a part of, one that manufactures lies in order to cover up the atrocities that they're committing, including experimenting on and murdering members of the alien species.

I'm actually pretty glad that I went in to the movie with no expectations and with very little knowledge about the film. It was really an amazing piece of work, impressive beyond any description, pretty much all around. The acting on all fronts was stellar, good guys and bad guys and in between. I didn't find any of the storytelling to be heavy-handed, and I can't imagine the creators of the story and film didn't understand the significance of where they chose to set the film. The treatment endured by the aliens isn't all that different than the treatment endured by many other cultures who have been deemed by their surrounding society as being unworthy and beneath them. They're not being viewed as living creatures who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They're like insects, further devalued by being affixed with the derogatory name of "prawns", because "that's what they look like". (The aliens actually reminded me quite a bit of the title character in the "Predator" films.)

Taking the journey through the film with Wikus was pretty interesting. He has no idea that he was really put there as a pawn by his father-in-law, who sees nothing wrong with lying to his own daughter about her husband, as long as it suits his purpose. Wikus shows complete disregard for the aliens, even as he tries to get their "signature" on his bogus forms.

One of the most disturbing scenes for me involves a building that Wikus comes upon. Yeah, it does look pretty disgusting in there, per human standards, but Wikus takes great pleasure in setting the building on fire, and he even makes gleeful comments that it sounds like popcorn with the little bits individually exploding inside. And he makes all of these comments with the greatest degree of joviality, after he has already explained that the building was actually a nursery that was created to feed the embryo of the aliens. The building he set on fire was housing the potential children of the aliens, and the "popcorn" sound he referenced was the sound of each baby alien exploding.

Wikus really does do some heinous things in the course of the film, but oddly enough, he comes back from that because of his own bewilderment and horror at turning into one of the aliens, especially after the government starts experimenting on him once they figure out that his now-alien left arm has the ability to make one of the alien guns work.

There's also this whole side-story having to do with Nigerian gangsters who are taking advantage of the aliens. It's an interesting story in and of itself and adds to the overall problems encounted by Wikus.

As much as he dismissed the aliens previously, Wikus ends up joining forces with one of them to retrieve the black liquid to power the ship. The alien has told him that if they go back to the mother ship still hovering above, he has the means to reverse the effects of Wikus' alien transformation.

Complications arise, though, and while the alien and his son are able to make it to the ship and back to the mother ship, Wikus stays behind to ward off the military forces.

I really loved the ending of the film, with it being already established that Wikus had made little things for his wife, and after all is said and done, his wife found a flower on her front step, made of metal petals. She wants to believe that Wikus made it for her, though everyone tells her it's impossible and that he's dead. They then show an alien while he was making the flower, and yes, it's very clear that it was Wikus in his full-alien form. As far as the alien and his son that escaped, there is debate about whether they've gone away for good or whether they will bring backup forces to wage war on Earth and to rescue their fellow aliens.

One of the things I really liked about this film is that it's not your normal aliens-come-to-Earth story. In most depictions, the aliens are the aggressors and are trying to take over the world, and the people are just trying to defend the Earth from them. In this film, the aliens aren't really that much different than a boat or plane of people who have crash-landed in hostile territory. The aliens are *not* human and so are treated as sub-human, even in a land where division of the races have been so horrible even in recent memory. It seems that there's always a hierarchy, someone who's the oppressor and someone who's the oppressed, some group of people (or in this case, creatures) that are considered undesirables and treated accordingly.

About the only complaint I had about the film was a small plot point that ends up needing to drive the story. The alien admits to Wikus that the process to reverse his transformation will take three years because now that he knows his own people are being held captive and tortured and experimented on, he needs to go back to their home planet to get reinforcements, and he will need all of the liquid for that and so can't spare any to help Wikus. I was surprised that he told Wikus this at that point rather than telling him once they'd gotten back to the ship. I would think he would have expected Wikus' outraged reaction at having to wait that long, though he perhaps wouldn't have expected Wikus to knock him out and take the ship.

The special effects in this film are fantastic. All of the aliens are CGI, but you can't tell at all. The effects were done by Peter Jackson's powerhouse company, Weta Digital.

I do think this is a terrific film, completely worthy of recommending to anyone, but I know that two factors - the genre elements of aliens and science fiction as well as the extremely graphic violence - will keep a lot of people away, and that's really too bad. I suppose that eventually, a version edited for regular television broadcast could at least reduce the violence, but in this film, the violence is actually intrinsic to the story. They very graphically show aliens, and people, being blown into smithereens by the various weaponry. But that's the nature of the disregard bestowed on the aliens as well as the consequences whenever the aliens decide to finally fight back. The scene towards the end when Wikus is saved from the military guy when aliens converge on them, and the aliens end up literally tearing the guy limb from limb is gross and violent and graphic, yes, but it's also vital to the story, of what that military guy has done to so many aliens, of the aliens finally being able to make a stand, and the transition that Wikus is making from human to alien, both physically and with regard to being in each world and culture.

I know someone who I think would really appreciate this movie, but she doesn't do the fantastical, so I've told her that if she can get past that the aliens are from outer space, I think she'd be ok, since the violence wouldn't really be an issue for her.

You don't often get science fiction films that are this thought-provoking. This is truly an amazing piece of work.

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