'District 9' definitely view-worthy

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

"District 9"

Sony Pictures

1 hour, 53 minutes

Every now and again, Hollywood accidentally produces something surprising -- something unique, cool, unexpected and genuinely worthy of attention. I say accidentally because the films I'm speaking of have relatively small budgets and unknown directors, and as a result, the studios pay them absolutely no attention.

Then, all of a sudden, the geeks are abuzz with news of the little movie that no one has heard of that is going to blow everyone away. "Desperado" was like that, and gave Robert Rodriguez and Antonio Banderas a career. "The Matrix" came completely out of nowhere, but managed to restart Keanu Reeve's career quite nicely, and now there's "District 9," a smart little movie about aliens that shines a harsh light on a whole host of social issues, all the while kicking some serious sci-fi butt.

"District 9" refers to a refugee camp on the outskirts of one of South Africa's largest cities, Johannesburg. The country that became known worldwide for its harsh racial policies during the Apartheid era is no stranger to ramshackle slums, but this ghetto is different.

District 9 houses the entire population, over a million individuals, of a huge alien craft that mysteriously came to rest over the city two decades ago.

The extraterrestrials, dismissively referred to as "prawns," are hideous to look at, with tentacles for hands, insectile features and a creepy clicking, popping language. Watching them squabble over rations of cat food and root through the huge trash heaps that litter the camp, it's easy to assume they are merely bestial, but is their demeanor a true measure of themselves, or a result of their oppressive incarceration?

There were early attempts to welcome the newcomers, but prejudice and fear won the day, and now District 9 is ringed with razor wire and armed guards. Unfortunately, this isn't enough for the frightened people of Johannesburg.

A new home, more like a concentration camp is being constructed 150 miles from the city, and as our story begins, evictions are under way.

The film focuses on Wikus Van De Merwe, a nerdy little bureaucrat charged with heading up the eviction proceedings. Wikus is a good man, at heart, but one whose long experience with surly and justifiably frightened refugees has engendered a disturbing racist (or speciest, I guess) streak.

He cares little for the creatures he's managing, and really only wants to impress his father-in-law, who heads the U.N.-like organization. But when Wikus makes the mistake of tampering with a mysterious piece of alien technology, his whole world turns upside down.

Suddenly he finds himself enduring a nightmare, on the run from his former colleagues who have vilified him as the worst kind of criminal. There's only one place to go for help, but that may be the most dangerous place on earth: District 9.

As sci-fi action films go, "District 9" is top-notch entertainment. There is plenty of shooting and enough explosions to satisfy even the casual "Die Hard" enthusiast, but all that's just window dressing. The real success of the film is in the large themes it tackles and in its courageous portrayal of its protagonists.

There is nothing cute about the prawns -- nothing cuddly, nothing even particularly noble-looking about them. First-time feature director Neil Blomkamp does not shy from showing the creatures at their most unappealing, and then dares the audience not to identify with them. By the end of the film, they no longer look so odd, so gross, so alien, though I can't say the same for their human antagonists.

The look of the film is an area where "District 9" excels. Not only are the aliens so perfectly rendered I couldn't tell whether they were CG or people in rubber suits, but the massive alien space ship is amazing.

It was most impressive, I think, in the way it is casually placed in the background of most exterior shots, as though it were just another building in an already crowded skyline. It doesn't gleam or glow -- it looks tired and run-down, though gargantuan. It also looks completely real. The production design is gritty, dirty and lived in, adding to the feel of reality.

Finally, and most impressively, the film is interspersed with documentary footage, interviews and surveillance camera footage. But lest you think this is another gimmicky "Cloverfield" with nausea inducting camera effects, think again.

This clever hodgepodge of photography is used just the right amount, adding a sense of veracity without detracting from the story.

There were a few complaints to be had. For one, it's a very violent film. Not gratuitously so, necessarily, but after the fourth or fifth exploding body (the aliens have wicked weapons), you'll start to wonder if you should have eaten before the movie.

Also, there are at least a few questions that go unanswered. Why is the ship here? There are a few vague explanations, but nothing like an answer. Why does the alien goo do what it does? Again, simply because the story demands it, I guess.

But these problems are small compared to the beautiful cinematography and effects work, the above-average acting and writing, and the steady hand of Blomkamp, who had the brilliant luck to have a producer in Peter Jackson, the man behind "Lord of the Rings."

The director, actors, writers and members of the design team deserve the credit here, but one wonders if Jackson's connections and creative genius didn't help grease the wheels a little bit. Though it's not callously set up for one, "District 9" could have a sequel and likely will once the box office is tallied. Let's hope that the harsh scrutiny the studio will place upon Blomkamp the next time doesn't burn away the magic he has created here. Grade: A-

"District 9" is rated R for excessive language and strong, bloody violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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