Tuesday, September 8, 2009

District 9

District 9 is a fiercely original take on a familiar story; a bumbling bureaucrat who has lost touch with his basic human decency is forced to re-examine his priorities when thrust into a situation out of his control.

Set in South Africa, Sharlto Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe, a mid-level manager for the local branch of the MNU, the world’s second largest weapons manufacturer. Framed in a documentary style narrative, the film reveals that twenty years prior a massive alien vessel came to rest over Johannesburg, seemingly inoperative. Humanity makes first contact by breaching the vessel only to find a million insect-like drones, nicknamed “prawns”, starving in the cavernous interior. The aliens are ferried to the ground and setup in a fenced off refugee area, which degenerates over decades to a shanty town and slum. The aliens have little or no initiative or direction and are left to struggle for survival in the shanty town as humanity’s baser natures come to the fore.

The MNU use the Alien for research and experimentation, attempting to find a way to use the genetically coded weapons in human hands, thus opening a new era of arms race. During a bureaucratic and political effort to evict the Aliens from the shanty town and into a self-described concentration camp, Wikus displays his absolute lack of empathy for the “prawns”, going so far as to demonstrate for the cameras how the population is “controlled”. A shack full of eggs is casually set ablaze and Wikus describes the explosive ruptures of the egg-sacs boiling as sounding like “popcorn”.

Bumbling and oblivious to the danger that surrounds him, he infects himself accidentally with a solution that serves a dual purpose: fuel to allow contact with the dormant mother ship above, and a transgenetic mutation, combining prawn and human DNA.

In a rapid fire 30 minute opening sequence, the film introduces all of the players, sets the stakes and sends the intentionally unlikeable main character on his road to self-discovery. It is elegant, frenetic narrative that propels the viewer into the story and leaves them gasping for breath.

The relentless pace of the film is supported by a powerful performance of Sharlto Copley, an unknown who brings a stumblingly humanity to his character. Initially desperate to stop the transformation within and thereby return to his ordinary life, Wikus is shoved violently towards a greater humanity. Faced with becoming a living weapon, he explodes into a panicked escape, bent on self-preservation. Only by hiding in District 9 is he able to shake the immediate pursuit of his tormentor, and therein he finds answers in an alien named Christopher Johnson. Finding they have mutual purposes, they join forces to retrieve the fluid which can allow the aliens to leave and also provide Wikus with a cure. The CG character work on Johnson is spectacular. A performance of body language and subtitled clicks, the moments as personal as the mourning of a lost friend, to the overwhelming stillness of unimaginable grief for a species, demonstrate a depth of character many human actors lack.

Wearing its influences proudly, District 9 references a host of films, such as Robocop, The Fly, and Alien Nation, though it never panders nor pays “homage” by directly lifting from those films. Rather it infers, as it tells its own story, weaving in multiple social-political subtexts into the narrative. Real world issues such as abortion, genocide, social strata, corporate homogeny, as well at the current flow of refugees (unwanted) into South Africa add to the verisimilitude of the film, rooting it in an immediately believable universe.

Shot in high-definition digital on RED cameras, the film has a clarity when projected digitally that is startling. Not prone to any of the strobing or artifacting that has plagued earlier digital cameras, a variety of lighting and movement styles are used to great effect. The aforementioned documentary framing device is shot on the shoulder or on sticks to great effect, measuring the typical talking heads interview style. Later in the film, traditional film technique consisting of both deep focus and long lens shots pepper the visuals and the native digital format allows for seamless integration of CG effects and character work.

Left open for a sequel, District 9 overcomes it pedantic script and sometimes hackneyed dialogue through sheer propulsive narrative, subtle subtext and powerful performance. Made for pocket change next to the blockbuster movies of the summer, District 9 parlays the true power of emergent cinema, in telling a small story writ large.

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