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District 9

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on December 28, 2009

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

Not to be confused with District 6 from apartheid South Africa. But, in all honesty, that’s a minor detail; the filmmakers did little to shroud the fact that this was an allegory for what happened under apartheid, and it supplements the aliens (called the new-found derogatory term “prawns”) for the black Africans of the region.

This is the baby of Peter Jackson (yes, elf-lord Peter Jackson of one-ring-to-rule-them-all fame) and Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote the film with Terri Tatchell. Apparently, Jackson and Blomkamp wanted to do a Halo film, but things fell through and this was the next best thing. It totally plays like a Halo film would, if done properly.

At this point, I’m going to interrupt myself to say this: I started this draft back in October and abandoned it because I apparently had other things to do (probably not true). It’s possible that I’m going to confuse some details and possibly leave some important things out, so please just bear with me here.

The film is appropriately gritty, the camera movements are jarring but not annoyingly so, and the special effects are great. Visually, this film delivers, staying true to the nature of the film and its underlying commentary. The action scenes are unbelievably enjoyable, and I cannot help but express childlike glee at the splatter-effects used when the alien weapons hit their meaty human targets. The film is alarming and disturbing, with very few “touching” moments, and once again plays with the idea of “the monster”. Who are the real monsters in the film? Are the aliens the monsters? They certainly look like monsters, their social skills are lacking, they have incredibly dangerous technology, and they are violent (and vile) scavengers. And yet, as per usual in such films, it is humankind that are shown to be the true monsters.

The performance by Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus (the lead), is really the lynch-pin of this film. I am so pleased that they chose an unknown actor– and one from Johannesburg, no less–to star in this film. Wikus really is our sole focus for most of the film, so it’s nice to not have the additional baggage of past roles bogging down his performance. Furthermore, he did a fantastic job. Nothing about his performance felt contrived, even if some of the scripted actions came off that way (I’ll get to that in a bit). His transformation from human to hybrid, accompanied by his transformation from oppressor to sympathizer/defector/oppressed, felt every bit real, and what kept the whole film from feeling contrived and well-worn was that Wikus was constantly bouncing between his own selfish needs/goals and his compassion. You feel sorry for the man, but you also feel like he deserves it. It’s a strange feeling to watch the lead of a film be both the hero and anti-hero. It’s not the same as when a lead starts off on the “bad side” and changes over to the “good side” in order to prevail by the end in the name of justice. Wikus is never fully on-board with the other side, even if his actions seem to indicate that he is. Part of this is because of the dire consequences he must face for making this choice, as well as his own delusions about what is happening to him.

It seems that I’m finding more and more to nitpick these days in terms of believability, but I blame some of that on the films I am watching. District 9 is so realistic and so extremely well-detailed that anything that prompts me to have a reality check feels more blatant. The military procedures and vast presence throughout most the film gave me a standard by which to hold all military operations that took place in the latter part of the movie. I simply cannot believe that they’d send in one or two convoys in order to apprehend what they consider to be the two most dangerous beings in the region. That is simply tactical lunacy. I also didn’t understand some of the alien technology (imagine that). We clearly see Wikus in the alien suit employing some sort of shielding device that protected him from the incoming gunfire and turned the projectiles back upon the gang. Why is it that this technology was used only once and never again? It’s possible that the device could only be deployed once and had to be recharged in some capacity, but it was still rather baffling since we never received an explanation for it, and it could have been very useful during the military stand-off scenes.

Those are nitpicks, but my major problems was something I also praised the film for, and that was some of the character’s reactions–most notably, Wikus’ waffling. I bought it for most of the film, but when faced with his military nemesis after having taken out an entire heavily-armed gang single-handed, Wikus defaults back into his wimpy old self and runs instead of fights. He abandons the one alien he managed to forge a sort of friendship (called “Christopher”), and runs, only to find his courage and return to save the day. Honestly, the only reason I could see for this scene was for that dramatic moment because he had already been courageous and combative numerous times. He’d risked his life again and again, and I believe he was already set on helping Christopher out at this point. It felt contrived, as did Christopher’s trance-like state over the mangled bodies of his people found in one of the military labs. Yes, that would be terribly traumatic, and I can understand that for a moment or two, but when you’re racing against the clock and trying to escape an army about to fill your body with lead, I think the instinct of “fight or flight” kicks in over the grief (I believe the aliens had similar instincts, judging from the film). Naturally, the only think that snaps Christopher out of this state is the mention of his son, who is back at the camp waiting for their return (meanwhile, as Wikus is trying to snap Christopher out of it for what seems like five full minutes, I’m sitting in my chair chanting “mention is son already” under my breath).

Those contrivances bothered me more in this film than they should, but I think it’s because of the quality of the rest of the film. I think this is a solid science-fiction film, with a good story and script, a great actor, and some wonderful direction.

Do I recommend this film? Yes, for anyone who likes sci-fi and isn’t squeamish. Watching Wikus change from human to hybrid is often compared to the film The Fly, and if you know anything about Croenenberg (director of The Fly) you know that it’s graphic and not pretty. And did I mention the splatters? Oh, the splatters. *Happy sigh*.


12 Responses to “District 9”

  1. Alex said

    Agreed, the swap between a film based more around dialog and setting to a standard action movie wasn’t exactly well done. Still, excellent movie aall the same.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      That switch didn’t bother me that much, in terms of it occurring. I just thought some of the details were problematic.

  2. Alejandro Velazquez said

    I agree with everything you said here. Love this review and love the film!

  3. Leeroy Edwardson Adrian the First said

    I totally agree with most of the review, although I did find some of the nitpicking to be a little much. Aside from that, great review as you basically left very little to comment on.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Yeah, I do like to nitpick. But those are the sorts of things that will bother me in movies, especially when I am enjoying them :P. Thanks for the reply!

      • That girl that you know said

        Meh, I think those were nits that needed to be picked. Also, I totally agree about the gleeful splattering.

        And, yeah, the constant back and forth with Wikus was a bit much. Also, did he really think that getting “fixed” would help him out that much back on earth? He would still be fucked because of his actions. I will say , though, that he did appear to pick a side at the end-when he told Christopher to just go so he could take out the attackers. I would say that that was him finally being a bit selfless.

        • Cantankerous Panda said

          Yes, at the very end he did come around, but it was for the last 5 minutes or so of the film. The rest of the time it was flip-flopping; all of a sudden, he throws caution to the wind and becomes totally selfless. It was just odd, to me.

          And yays for splatter!

          • That girl that you know said

            No, I agree. It was odd. I was just pointing out that he was pretty “on board with the other side” by the end.

  4. Serryl said

    Awww, I was so close to completely agreeing with you for the first time, but you had to nitpick. 
    In all seriousness though, I agree with everything that you’ve said was positive about the movie. I especially enjoyed Copley performance in light of reading that some of his lines were improvised. He was perfect for playing this sort of jerk/hero role.

    I recognized most of the negative stuff you bring up when I saw the film, specifically the way certain scenes played out in ways that seem less about realism and more about generating a desired emotional effect in the audience. The thing is, when it’s done somewhat sparingly and done well, I really enjoy that stuff. To me it’s part of the challenge a filmmaker has in presenting a broad series of events in a way that is highly condensed without seeming so.

    For example, I recently heard Matt Damon on NPR discussing his recent movie “Invictus.” During the interview he touched on the fact that in the movie there were some white athletes who were strongly opposed to unification. They refuse to sing the new anthem I believe. However, in real life, he said most of the players were singing the anthem in the showers and didn’t have to be convinced or “defeated.” That particular opposition in the film was largely engineered to symbolically represent the more nuanced opposition that Mandela faced in reality.

    Returning to “District 9,” I felt like a lot of the moments you identified as “reality-checks” were moments which the filmmakers chose to use a highly dramatic (yet unrealistic) scene as shorthand for the overall emotional impact. Christopher has to linger unnecessarily long in the medical bay so that the audience has time to absorb the horror of what that moment meant to him. If he had run in and snapped out of his trance quickly, the weight of the scene might’ve been lessened. When I feel like the filmmaker is doing silly stuff in this way–as shorthand–I tend to give them a pass, if only out of understanding.

    Of course, that’s all just my opinion. (^_^)

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      I just felt that it was all so typical and it stood out in an atypical film. It was disappointing to me, and it brought me out of the film. I understand why these conventions are used, but I hate it when they scream “LOOK AT ME! I AM A TROPE AND I AM OBVIOUS” at me.

  5. […] couple of stupid mistakes after he was so diligent and smart about everything else. As I said in my District 9 review, sometimes when things seem so well thought-out in a movie for so long, a character making a […]

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