Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9: A terrific movie...that made me really hungry for shellfish

"District 9" isn't one of those movies where you jump out of your seat cheering at the end, sated and content after a rousing, slam-bang cinematic climax. Instead, it's one of those movies where you sit there quietly with the realization that you've just seen a very, very good film that you probably won't want to see again. And I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing.

First, a quick recap of "District 9"'s basic plot in case you haven't heard about it yet. Shot in a documentary style, the film looks at what happens when an alien spaceship breaks down in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa and a million lobster-like aliens (derisively called "prawns" by the humans) end up displaced and under guard for two decades in a detention area known as District 9. When the government decides to move them to a new location outside the city, it's up to a paper-pusher named Wikus to facilitate the process. And that's when things start to get all Kafka on him.

First off, let me just say thank you to producer Peter Jackson and director/writer Neill Blomkamp for having the guts to make an absolutely original film. It's not a sequel. It's not based on a comic book. It didn't start off as a 1970s TV show. It's an original idea executed beautifully. For that reason alone, "District 9" is a welcome breath of fresh air. And yes, I just used a cliche to applaud originality.

The movie is fast-paced and gory and relentlessly grim, but also surprisingly funny and heartfelt. At its core, "District 9" a buddy picture but it's also about family, relationships, greed, violence and mankind's horrifying ability to dehumanize living creatures -- including other humans -- whenever it's convenient. It's a testament to the talents of Blomkamp that he's able to balance out so many themes and ideas without getting heavy-handed about any of them. If anything, he seemed to go a bit too easy on some themes, like apartheid, which serves as an allegorical backdrop to the story without much reflection.

The bulk of the acting duties in "District 9" are carried by one man, newcomer Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus. The audience's first glimpse of Wikus is as a buttoned-up, tense man ready to take on a huge new responsibility. You can tell that Wikus is a company man, who follows the law and believes himself to be just a good guy who loves his wife. But once he gets to District 9, we realize he's also a jerk, a man who looks down on the aliens as lower life forms and disregards their sentience and pain as much as the next guy. But then karma bites him bad and that's when Wikus begins his transformation and Copley's talents kick into high gear. It's painful watching what Wikus goes through and Coply does an incredible job balancing that pain with Wikus' fear, cowardice and yes, stupidity. It's a terrific, three-dimensional portrayal of someone thrust into an unimaginable position.

And did I mention there's explosions? This movie packs a ton of action into its under-two-hour running time. It's not a movie for the faint of heart -- there's a hell of a lot of gore, both alien and human. But it's not Bruckheimer-style crash and burn action, which is to say, it's not just there to shake the fanboys out of their seats. It all serves the story and that in itself is refreshing.

Which takes me back to my original point -- "District 9" is an outstanding movie but it's also a tough movie to watch. I can honestly say I have no desire to see it again, but at the same time, I'm very glad I saw it the first time. It's an exciting, riveting, aggressive, hard film and that's an incredible achievement in these times of cookie-cutter cinema. "District 9" is well worth the price of admission. Don't miss it.

Just trust me, you're going to want to eat lobster afterward...and you're going to feel guilty about it.

Now tell me what you thought of the film....

11 comments:

RedCochina said...

Thank you! You described everything I loved about the movie more articulately than I could. It was so good, brilliantly executed and original but I can't stomach it a second time thru. I felt the same way about The Green Mile and Schindler's List. Very good but very heavy.

jessi said...

I saw it yesterday and loved it. It's an incredibly thought-provoking film. Every review I've read today (I avoided them like the plague before going in, so I wouldn't be spoiled) has made me reexamine what I got out of it. I've also been finding all sorts of interesting trivia that helps me understand and appreciate the movie even more. Have you seen the short film "Alive in Joburg"? I recommend YouTubing it; it was Neil's original short that inspired D9.

Mistifi said...

This is really exactly how I felt. I just got out of the theater about 2 and a half hours ago and I felt so very heavy having seen it.

It was definitely a wonderful movie and definitely one I would not watch again. I also realized that by the time the movie ended, I was simply in shock by the acting put forward by the main character. That's a hell of a personality change for one guy.

My biggest complaint about the film was that I wasn't sure that the Wikus we saw at the beginning would make the transformation we saw by the end.

I think this is a powerful movie because this is the sort of thing our governments deal with every day. You can feel real hopelessness and helplessness radiating from every character who is not a government worker.

The Science Manly said...

Great movie, fantastic characters.

The story was inspired by a short film Blomkamp made about the very same premise ... so, it's not 100% original, but it greatly expanded an original idea of Blomkamp's.

There are also tons of little references to science fiction in the movie. I met a guy in line who was seeing it for the 2nd time, just to spot those!

It's not your average sci-fi movie. It deals with heavy issues, such as race, racism, segregation, transformation, friendship and what it means to make a promise you may not be able to keep.

I recommened everyone see it.

Sara Jo said...

I saw it opening night and I'm going back to see it tomorrow night.

I think it's my passion for storytelling that is driving me to see it again. District 9 was so layered and original, I'm sure there are themes and devices I missed the first time. And how often do you get to see an alien movie where humans are the bad guys?!

Also, Sharlto Copley is hot.

ydtulsa said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention how great the effects were. The ship hovering over Joburg looked like it really belonged there, and all the actors related so convincingly with the aliens.

I love me some political scifi. It is one of those movies that is a punch to the gut (ala Schindler's List or American History X) and that's why I have to see it again. To try and see what I missed while my gut was being punched.

Megan said...

I didn't crave lobster, but I definitely went to bed thinking about prawns.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review!

"...it's also about family, relationships, greed, violence and mankind's horrifying ability to dehumanize living creatures -- including other humans -- whenever it's convenient."

Perhaps somewhat fittingly, this is also a spot-on description of the recent Torchwood: Children of Earth, another one of those things where you watch once and are glad you watched, but are not really willing to subject yourself to a repeat viewing.

Anonymous said...

I saw the movie the other day and I absolutely loved it. The acting, the story, the effects, everything. Also, am I the only one that just fell in love with Christopher's son? That little guy stole my heart.

Crone said...

I had some suspension of disbelief issues but I enjoyed it all immensely anyhow. I did keep thinking about how BSG handled similar themes . I think BSG did that a bit better (think- beginning of season three )but nonetheless, despite some odd plot holes I did enjoy the charming prawn movie.

Although when the folks were eating the prawns I leaned over and whispered to my mate" Perhaps a lovely butter and garlic sauce?" and that produced a giggling fit which disturbed the people behind us.

watch movies said...

Every movie that gathered Peter Jackson, South Africa, Aliens and a true message about the human behaviors is a good movie :) I hope it will gather an Oscar too this year!