Sunday, February 7, 2010

District 9

Holy Cow! Meet Wikus van de Merwe who works District 9. The character is played with complete credibilty by Sharlto Copley. The transformation of the character throughout the film occurs on a number of levels. This is a tricky performance. Copley deserves an Academy Award. It's a crime he wasn't nominated for Best Actor.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise District 9 was nominated for Best Picture simply because it should be, but the Academy isn't normally that sharp when it comes to science fiction. Nevertheless, District 9 is head and shoulders a better film than Avatar, but it will clearly be the dark horse. The travesty will be that it wins nothing. How can this film not make Best Director and Best Actor categories is a travesty of entertainment justice. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK if you haven't seen the film.

As of this posting I have viewed District 9 twice. There has been much discussion surrounding this film since its release and I wasn't exactly sure why. I wanted to see it in theatres, but time got away from me and I began to lose my original enthusiasm for the picture. I could not have been more wrong in my expectations. This is a breath of fresh science fiction air. I remember anticipating seeing both Moon [2009] and District 9 [2009]. I had heard many good things about both films. Critical reaction to both was generally positive. Indeed, both are labors of love, beautifully filmed with their own rich cinematographies, but District 9 for me is the real standout. The difference, apart from the overall subject matter, is speed. Moon is a bit slow for my taste. Director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is the perfect balance of story, action and human drama. It is a near flawless mix. For a first time director to handle so many moving parts with the kind of steady, directing hand established here is nothing short of awesome. In lesser hands this film would be a disaster. Blomkamp must be the real thing, because this is a chaotic, complex film that is woven by what feels like the work of an auteur. I am clearly gushing over the craftsmanship of the film, but Blomkamp's District 9 is one of the best science fiction films I've seen in years. Dare I say it is a classic that will age with time with the same kind of respect bestowed upon Ridley Scott's Blade Runner for decades? This was a mild stunner for me. The intense visceral reaction I felt while watching the film was far more than I anticipated coupled with the kinds of emotional moments that were woven into the aforementioned Scott classic.

Aliens, dubbed as prawns by the humans, have arrived in a mothership over Johannesburg, South Africa. Initial story details of the alien arrival are established in District 9 and delivered via a cross-section of documentary style and interviews intercut with live action footage. The film does an impeccable job of building a portrait of this fictitious reality. Some of these details and interviews are fascinating in a different way upon repeated viewings. Are there questions? Many. Some are answered. Some are left to our imagination. Were there questions remaining after Blade Runner? Sure. This is what makes science fiction great. Questions are one thing, but is the logic there? The question is are the rules of engagement within the fictious universe plausible? In District 9, the reality is simply mindblowing.

The film is a heady mix of socio-political commentary, human behavior, third world depravity and ghetto-internment camp violence, corporate conspiracy and questions of what qualifies as terrorism. District 9's title itself is essentially a metaphor for apartheid, the Holocaust's concentration camps or Japanese internment camps. Pick your poison from the history books. Most importantly, none of it is preached. It is portrayed, fleshed out and visualized with real grace, unlike the agenda voiced in Director James Cameron's preachy Avatar that hit with the clunky grace of a rock to the head. Greatest of all in District 9 is the portrait of one man's personal catharsis and his evolution within the social hierarchy. The depiction of both human and alien perceptions are reflected from beginning to end through one Wikus van de Merwe of MNU [MultiNational United-America isn't alone in the blame game here] Alien Affairs brilliantly portrayed by Sharlto Copley. His performance is a masterstroke. His character is a complex, multi-dimensional classic and Copley's talent in bringing the charater to fruition lights up the screen. It is Oscar-worthy stuff.

Sharlto Copley's performance is truly stunning. The physical, mental and behavioral transformation he undergoes is astounding for any actor to pull off. He delivers like a natural. He is Wikus van de Merwe. We experience the story through his eyes. He undergoes a change from beaurecratic lifer disaffected by his and others' treatment of the aliens to sympathizer and reluctant hero. Through his struggles he brings an empathy to our CGI visitors that is hardly expected and rarely seen. Wikus himself moves from likeable in a slightly overbearing, talky, slightly pathetic government official way to a kind of regular guy everyman champion. When the tables turn, Wikus is forced to quickly move from accepted to ostracized, integral to exiled, hunter to hunted fearfully running from those he once did the bidding. Following an unfortunate incident Wikus begins to exhibit heart. He's entirely sympathetic and his own emotional transformation through the film is reflected back through an unexpected relationship with one of the prawns called Christopher and Christopher's son. It is through this relationship the race of creatures becomes three dimensional.

Signs of genuine humanity in Wikus begin to surface following the incident and are also reflected through conversations with his wife.

Apart from Wikus desire to return to the comforts of his wife's arms, there are two critical moments for me when Wikas begins to consciously make an emotional change and reluctantly let down the walls. Where the aliens were once simply referred to as prawns, Wikus begins to see something more with Christopher. This is notable in Wikus' personal transformation and growth. Where once he simply referred to the aliens as "creatures" he was now giving them the face they deserved. These were more than cockroaches. These were higher lifeforms and Wikus was finally being forced to recognize this through his own banishment by his own race. Recognizing Christopher as a father and the prawns' own desire for the comforts of home was crucial to the story. And to think at one point earlier in the film Wikus had no compunctions or remorse in disconnecting life support to thriving, gestating, cocooned baby aliens referring to their death knell as "popcorn."

The location shoot in South Africa is a striking setting and perfect backdrop for delivering the perfect sense of apartheid-like division between the humans and the prawns. The foreign setting takes most viewers out of their comfort zone. We all feel a little alien in this one. The visuals are a wonder. The spectacles are there, but it is shouldered by a very strong, thoughtful script and performance. The science fiction touches are quite frankly awesome. The alien weaponry humans simply cannot activate due to a biomechanical signature of some sort is breathtaking. I wanted more, more, more. The film is rich in small details developing this technology. Aliens scour heaps of garbage and dumps for any remnant of their material. It is imperative to their survival they find parts from their ship. No substitute will do. Not only is it an alien liquid they seek, but it is their lifeblood that is infused into the very biomechanical technology these aliens use. So much is notable upon a second viewing. I like the simple realities of this film. Our weapons can hurt the aliens. They can certainly use our weapons to hurt us. Their weapons are too advanced to be utilized by us. They have the intelligence to communicate if they wish. Humans have learned aspects of the alien language to communicate with them. Cat food is a delicacy. Yuck! It's all very grounded in simple, good ideas. There are a few sequences where I desperately wanted to see more of the alien technology it was so dam good. It's just terrific stuff. The action and effects are simply awesome in the final hour. I remember reading one review calling the effects "clunky." The only thing clunking was a smashing, metallic alien bioweapon suit device, but there's nothing clunky about this picture. In fact, it's the rare film that goes from good to great with a steady ascension.
There is a recognition of inner strength and courgae for Wikus, again, as forced by circumstances thrust upon him. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have alienware as a suit and a weapon of choice. But Wikus, in a natural moment of humal frailty and weakness crippled by fear, begins to run away from the realities that have engulfed him. It could happen to anyone, not that we would be faced with a body horror crisis or alien visitations. In the end, Wikus finds the strength to do right by Christopher and his son when it comes down to the wire despite knowing his ultimate fate. It is a selfless moment and catapults the character of Wikus to another level. There is something truly powerful in this sequence before the action begins. The juxtaposition of Wikus in the foreground against the backdrop of the alien mothership gives us all pause. It's a beautiful moment and best captured on Blu-Ray, beautiful, because it is here he realizes what needs to be done and what is the right thing. There is something eerie about the moment in Wikus' near recognition of the mothership as part of who he was to become. Could he have felt a connection more profoundly alien here despite finally recognizing his own true humanity? Everything operated by these aliens courses with their own lifeblood. The biomechanical concept is part of who these aliens are. It's not a new concept, but it is delivered better in District 9 than I have ever seen. As a result of being plugged into the alienware, Wikus can hear everything. These alien surroundings were becoming familiar. In a sense, he was becoming part of the hive.

There is such raw personality and emotional power running through this film channeled through Wikus and to a lesser extent Christopher. To witness Wikus' catharsis and transformation both physically and emotionally is truly District 9's strength. The science fiction action and alien weaponry is the icing on the cake. A girlfriend of mine said she weeped, because her heart bled for Wikus. She had tissues. She was a girl! She's a girl I tell ya! She loved this film. Wikus is truly your anti-hero, and his guarded personality unravels and reveals real heart. His uneasy alliance with Christopher is forged and his empathies to Christopher's servile race become more pronounced. Christopher is Wikus' alien doppelganger. He sees his own paternal nature in him. Ironically, throughout the entirety of the film the aliens show no designs to even harm the humans. They simply want to go home. This is really hard science fiction to stomach because it throws the mirror up to all of us while we are riveted and repulsed by its every frame. Nothing is wasted here and seeing it a second time proved to me further just how cleverly edited and sharp this Blomkamp's picture is.

It's bad enough I have a hard enough time with body horror concepts. Physical transformations so graphically portrayed in films like David Cronenberg's The Fly [1986] simply chill me to the bone. The metamorphosis endured by Wikus is easily as painful to watch here and heartbreakingly rendered by Copley. The same kind of care when into the process for Copley as it did for Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. There are so many emotional currents running through the film thanks to Copley that it is infinitely more human in every aspect than most alien pictures. The film is as original in its assembly as they come despite elements like The Fly or even Black Hawk Down. There's much more in play here. All of these ideas succeed because they are so seamless. I've never seen a film like this one. This is one of those rare sci-fi films that comes along and sets a standard. This is hard core science fiction compared to the more fantasy-oriented world of Avatar.
This film really fires up the old synapses. I was sympathetic. I was unsettled. I was disturbed. I was invested. I never once felt detached from this film. It was a remarkable science fiction experience. This film is considered a small event next to the works of films like Avatar, but I found it to be a superior film all around. It was easily as profound and imposing as the spaceship that hovers over Johannesburg proper in the film. You won't want to live here, but District 9 is an essential visit.
Oh and about the future, District 9 is a perfect film as a self-contained "creatuure." The need for a sequel is not required. Like anything else in the film, one's imagination is left to do much of the thinking here. Some of the best science fiction films leave you with unanswered questions that allow the mind to contemplate the possibilties. District 9 is no exception. Nevertheless, many films end with the prerequisite lame finale merely to set up the money coffers for part two and three. The endings and cliffhangers are often dreadful. District 9 is so smart and so deliciously entertaining I stand before you to scream I AM DESPERATE FOR A SEQUEL! I'm not sure Director Blomkamp will do it, but he's the only non-Hollywood guy who should do it. I can't remeber the last time I desired to see a sequel to a film more than this one. Ultimately, a sequel could be a disaster or it could be a masterpiece in the right hands. I think Blomkamp's the guy to do it. I am desperate to learn more about the paths and destinies of both Wikus and Christopher. What of Christopher's world? Will Wikus want to reunite with his human wife? Will she want him? Will it be too late? Will he be loyal to prawn nation? Will mankind be ravaged by all out alien assault led by Christopher. I sure hope so. The epic and intimate potential is all there. Oh what fun it could be. So many questions beg answering, but I will daydream my own conclusions for now. District 9 is quite simply a classic science fiction tale that will leave you considering it for days.
As far as the Oscars, Best Picture!? Give it up for Blomkamp. It's better than the patronizingly fun Avatar. It won't beat Director Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, but you know something? It should. Okay, not that the Sci-Fi Fanatic doesn't have an agenda here. It won't happen I know. Besides you know Bigelow's picture will win. I can see it all now. The split screen will be on Bigelow and Cameron, former spouses, for the reaction shots. Cameron will be clapping for Bigelow. You always have to put your money on the ex-wife. I don't have one, but I'm thinking.
District 9: A+


Havremunken said...

I saw this on Blu-Ray the day before you posted your review. Awesome stuff, but I think I have to watch it again before I make up my final opinion about it.

But the scene with Wikus (I assume) and his flower at the end was really cool, in the way that it actually made me more emphatic towards the prawns in general. We felt his pain because he used to be human. Maybe the other prawns have it the same way?

Anyway, yeah, this movie is a shining example of why I love scifi. :)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Amen brother. So well said. This is why science fiction is such a wonderful form of expression.

H! Your thoughts are always some of the most thoughtful and considered and great to see your comments here today.