Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Director Neill Blomkamp's freshman, feature-length, dystopian sci-fi thriller "District 9" (* out of ****)qualifies as both grotesque and grungy. Worse, heavily-laden with anti-apartheid messages, it emerges nevertheless as an uneven blend of Monty Python skits with a serious polemic about alien rights. Does anybody remember director Christopher Columbus’ “Bicentennial Man” (1999) with Robin Williams and lack of concern for alien rights? Despite some visceral action sequences that attest to Blomkamp’s expertise at staging action, this nimble but numb-skulled nail-biter puts the protagonist in a thoroughly impossible position. Essentially, “District 9” exemplifies those supernatural films that occur primarily on Earth with the 'aliens among us’ theme. Mankind knows that the aliens have arrived. In fact, not only have we accepted them, we have grossly taken advantage of them! These aliens are neither as lovable as “Wall-E” lovable nor as cunning as the “Terminator.” You could call “District 9”: 'The Day the Aliens Stood Still.'

Indeed, Blomkamp and co-scenarist Terri Tatchell encapsulate the action in a fictional expose television documentary. Intermittently, Blomkamp indulges himself with adrenalin-laced dramatic footage that no documentary film could have captured without staging it. At other times, Blomkamp cross-cuts black & white footage from surveillance cameras to show our woebegone hero at work. Essentially, he is following the same scenario as “Cloverfield,” except for those few sequences that do not fit into the documentary. Indeed, “District 9” borrows from a number of science fiction films. A gigantic alien spaceship visits Earth like in "Independence Day,” but this spacecraft cannot leave. The spaceship hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa, for three months before the authorities board it. The skeletal aliens that humans find inside are malnourished, and the good folks in Johannesburg, wind up confining these aliens in what constitutes a huge slum. The humans treat the aliens like second-class citizens and allow them to sink into squalor. The aliens resort to crime to make ends meet and are often at odds with the authorities. No, "District 9" shares little in common with the conventional "Alien Nation." These aliens look like they walked off the set of a "Predator" movie and--unlike most alien invaders--they are not as intimidating as their counterparts. These aliens remain largely at our mercy, and Blomkamp renders humanity as brutal and unscrupulous in their treatment of the aliens.

“District 9” opens with several talking heads as part of a documentary about the scandal involving the protagonist. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) is an ordinary field representative for Multi-National United, (MNU), a private company that has dominion over the aliens. Escalating alien crime and violence has prompted the government to move some 1.8 million of them to new District 10 camp located outside of Johannesburg. They are being served eviction notices by MNU field representatives who are backed up by armed helicopters hovering above them. Our hero’ s father-in-law, Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar) assigns him to head up the mission. During one of his visits to a domicile, Wikus discovers a suspicious cylinder among an arms cache. When he fumbles with it, a black liquid squirts into his face, contaminating him with alien DNA. As the story open, Wikus is already under investigation. The tabloids carry pictures of him mating with aliens. We are given a recap of the story and then the second half opens as Wikus grows flippers on his left hand. Suddenly, Wikus becomes the most prized human alive with the alien DNA polluting his bloodstream. Alien guns that scientists could never have fired now discharge at Wikus’ half-breed DNA touch. Mind you, Wikus refuses to fire the weapons, but his captors shock him with cattle prods until he accommodates them. Wikus goes berserk and escapes from the laboratory. He joins forces with an intelligent, inventor-type alien named Christopher. Christopher wants to rekindle the energy of his command capsule so he can get back to the spacecraft overhead and haul freight.

Basically, "District 9" appropriates the ‘what if’ sci-fi theme and employs it as a metaphor for a social consciousness sermon about racial xenophobia. Neither Blomkamp nor Tatchell regard humanity in a sentimental light. Worse, we are asked to sympathize with a hero who is a complete imbecile. The theme of man's inhumanity to aliens comes through 'loud and clear.’ Imagine a science fiction movie that takes place in a third world country and you've summed up "District 9." These aliens aren't cool. They look like big bugs and they speak in guttural language. Everybody refers to them disparagingly as ‘prawns.’ Blomkamp translates the alien lingo in white subtitles. They are as pathetic as the hero who behaves as if he were in a Woody Allen comedy. He is a naive moron, a patsy, a fall guy. The important part of the plot transpires when he undergoes a quasi-alien metamorphosis a la Franz Kafka meets "The Fly."

Blomkamp lenses "District 9" like a documentary, and its bureaucratic hero makes an ass out of himself. He couldn't be any more abject if he were John Cleese in a Monty Python skit. Eventually, after he gets contaminated, he begins his transformation into an alien with one hand turning into an alien claw. Yes, the aliens do resemble huge insects which make them appear less hostile but far from appealing. Indeed, Blomkamp creates a very convincing alternative universe in that the story is credible and as down to earth as any sci-fi you can imagine. Eventually, the alien along with the Wikus Van De Merwe bureaucratic hero launch a one-man/one-alien war against the repressive organization MNU that keeps the alien cooped up in the worse circumstances. The section between Merwe escaping and then teaming up with Christopher is action packed, but there are no surprises in this flat movie. I cannot believe that so many people are going ape about this asinine little flick.

No comments: