Monday, October 5, 2009
District 9 **1/2
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James
Eugene Khumbanyiwa, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood
It's "E.T." meets "The Defiant Ones" in Neill Blomkamp's debut feature film "District 9".
A thinly disguised allegory about the infamous District 6 in South Africa during the apartheid; only the plot exchanges racial segregation for out-of-the-planet-species' discrimination.
In 1982 a large alien space craft stops above Johannesburg, South Africa ("why not New York?" the movie asks without thinking the audience will obviously get its anti-Hollywood establishment theories, along with its location limited budget and African similes).
The malnourished, mistreated aliens (from planet who knows, all in the sake of some political correctness) are taken out of the ship and transported to District 9, a slum in the middle of the city where they live for more than twenty years.
Why the aliens aren't deported, despite the protests of locals, is never explained, until in the year 2010 private military contractors MNU (Multinational United, an obvious critique of U.N. neutrality/privatization eventuality) are hired by the government to transport 1.8 million aliens, or "prawns" as they're derogatorily referred to, into District 10, a refugee/concentration camp where the unwanted visitors won't obstacle typical Johannesburg life.
MNU agent Wikus van der Merwe (breakthrough actor Copley who is a true revelation) in charge of the relocation enters District 9 to deliver eviction notices to the aliens (we never learn how they got to understand each other's languages), until an unexpected event turns the tables around for him, forcing him to empathize with the aliens.
After this it becomes a "we are all the same" fable in which Bomkamp confuses populism with auterism.
He uses every technique in the movie making guidebook: from CGI/live action interaction (the effects are superb), to basic Hollywood thriller sequences, all framed by a mockumentary aesthetic.
The film begins wonderfully, with the characters appearing to be real people and the alien footage as harrowing as anything we'd see in the news, but the director seemingly wanted to please everyone and he disregards the original technique to explore the ones mentioned before.
This turns the movie into a joke of sorts, because the audience will have a hard time deciding what to take seriously.
Those who go to the cerebral snobbish side will see the Spileberg-ian sequences as an insult to the relevance the docudrama approach would've given it.
While others who relish with explosions and clever one-liners, will be completely bored by the interviews and news footage.
As if this wasn't enough Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell, also tries to include every issue that has plagued the African continent in the last century.
Not only are there apartheid mentions, but there are also plotlines involving the creation of slums, the obvious socioeconomical inequity, uncontrolled population growth and even weapon trafficking (blood diamonds are the only thing the aliens aren't involved in, at least onscreen).
This last issue gives the film another dilemma, as it's revealed that its Nigerians who not only traffic weapons with the aliens, but also exchange drugs, contraband products, are involved in prostitution and even practice cannibalism with the otherworldly creatures (under the supervision of a rightful witch doctor of course).
If there is an inside joke in the way Nigerians are mentioned in the movie, it will be lost in translation for international viewers who might see this as nothing else than racism.
If they took the time to exchange a whole race for creatures from another planet, was it so hard to find a way to treat Nigerians in the same way?
"District 9" isn't real or fake enough to do its job well. The lazy third act is a showcase for by-the-numbers writing and directing, with James playing a blood thirsty soldier (think "The Fugitive" without redemption) on the hunt for aliens and anything that gets in his way.
The main problem with the movie is that it remains in a safe ideological limbo; if they had made a movie about the actual apartheid, they would've been under more scrutiny, controversy and would've had to pay dues to real people and events.
But by taking the allegory road (particularly when everyone knows it's mean to represent something else) they haven't achieved the timeless relevance they wanted, but by making it a genre flick, they come off as cowardly exploitative.
Proof of that is the fact that we never learn a single thing about the aliens, like the people who take stands on issues just to seem interesting, the filmmakers don't reveal anything about their culture, their planet, their traditions or their needs.
The movie takes a traditionalist, almost reactionary position (a la racial issue films in the 1960s) and watches them through the eyes of humans who are obviously biased.
Blomkamp cares as much about the aliens as the companies who use them as experiments.
They were put there just so the white man, err human, could learn a lesson.