"....a well-made and frequently entertaining work with enough originality to set it apart..."

Scathing Indictment of the Disenfranchised

(082109) As some of you with long memories or a keen fascination into fanboy culture may recall, it was announced with a considerable amount of fanfare that the enormously popular videogame “Halo” was going to be transformed into a big-screen cinematic epic under the supervision of none other than Peter Jackson. However, while Jackson’s name dominated the announcement of the project, he was only going to serve as a producer while protégé Neil Blomkamp took hold of the directorial reins. However, the combination of a proposed budget considerably north of $200 million, the uneven box-office history of films based on videogames and, perhaps most significantly, the fact that Blomkamp had no films to his credit outside of a few shorts and commercials made the powers-that-be more nervous than usual and, in a move that surprised many, they canceled the entire project outright. Out of the wreckage of that aborted project, Jackson and Blomkamp have teamed up again on “District 9,” an alternately goofy and gory sci-fi/horror/comedy that seems to have been produced solely to show to the nervous nellies at the studios that Blomkamp, making his feature directorial debut, has what it takes to successfully pull off something on the scale of “Halo.” While the question of why anyone would want to make a movie out of “Halo” remains unanswered, “District 9” does show that Blomkamp is not without talent and could very well one day make a truly great genre film.

Based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film “Alive in Jo’burg,” “District 9” kicks off with an extended prologue that quickly and efficiently sets up the basic premise. It posits that 28 years ago, a massive spaceship came to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa and just stayed there. After a while, humans managed to make their way inside the ship and discovered thousands of alien creatures inside, many of them sick and malnourished. In response, they were put in a refugee camp known as District 9, much to the apprehension of many locals who are either afraid of the dangers that they might represent or resent the fact that so much money is being spent on caring for them instead on the actual citizens of the area. Unfortunately, what was originally designed to be an adequate temporary solution has grown into an imperfect permanent one as both the alien population and the tensions between them and their human neighbors begin to grow exponentially. However, the humans in charge--chiefly the mysterious entity known as Multi-National United--want to keep them around in order to try to crack the secret behind their weaponry, a highly advanced arsenal that, alas, can only be operated the aliens themselves, and decide instead to relocate the creatures, derisively known as “prawns,” to a more remote camp known as District 10.

Put in charge of the relocation project is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a goofy and somewhat clueless mid-level MNU functionary who will remind many viewers of the head of a certain Scranton-based paper concern. While making his way through the camp, camera crew in toll, handing out quasi-legal eviction notices in a manner that ranges from patronizing to cruel, he comes across one shack that he believes is stockpiling valuable alien weaponry. Instead, he comes up with a canister filled with some mysterious gunk and inevitably sprays himself with a snootful of it. Before long, his fingernails are falling off, he appears to be bleeding black and when he lands in the hospital, he finds that his left arm (which was injured during the eviction proceedings) has been replaced by an alien appendage. It seems that the substance that he unwittingly ingested is altering his DNA and transforming him into an alien himself. Since this means that he can actually utilize the alien weapons, Wikus becomes, in the words of one MNU higher-up, “the most valuable business artifact on Earth” and they snatch him from the hospital. Wikus manages to escape but soon finds himself pursued by the forces of MNU and by a Nigerian gang that has been exploiting the prawns for years (trading weaponry for cans of cat food) and whose leader wants Wikus’ mutated arm for his own icky purposes. With nowhere else to go, Wikus returns to District 9 and teams up with a couple of the remaining prawns, the more advanced Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his young son, in the hopes of reversing his mutation and to help the aliens return to their ship and fly home.

The early scenes of “District 9” are by far the best. Utilizing a blend of deliberately rough-and-tumble hand-held camera work and a news broadcast framework that mixes faux-talking heads with genuine archival news footage for an additional level of verisimilitude, the prologue does an impressive manner of laying out the essential conceit without getting bogged down in so many details that viewers are lost before the story has even begun. Blomkamp also makes the wise decision of letting us get a long and unhurried glimpse of what is going on behind the walls of District 9 via the tour led by Wikus. Without laying things on too thick, these scenes keenly illustrate the long-simmering human-alien tensions--the obvious subtext being our discomfort with any outsiders who come to our land to make a life for themselves--while slowly and methodically ratcheting up the suspense as they build to the inevitable point where all hell breaks loose. The screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell contains plenty of gripping action sequences but also maintains a certain level of dark humor throughout without ever pushing things over into outright silliness. From a visual standpoint, the film is really impressive in the way that it looks as though many of the events are literally unfolding right before our eyes even though we instinctively realize that every element had to have been planned in exhaustive detail beforehand in order to help keep the budget as low as possible. And while the film is essentially a technical exercise from beginning to end, I also enjoyed the lead performance from Copley as Wikus--while he may come across as a vaguely unlikable office drone at first, he grows more and more sympathetic as his plight becomes more overt and towards the end, we find ourselves rooting for him not just because he is the “hero” but because we actually care about what happens to him.

Fans of Peter Jackson will no doubt notice similarities between “District 9” and his own early attempts at low-budget slapstick horror-comedies such as “Bad Taste,” “Meet the Feebles” and the immortal “Dead Alive”--they are so pronounced at times that Jackson feels as much like an unaccredited director as Luc Besson has on many of the films that he has produced over the last few years. The problem here is that this film shares one of the key flaws of those earlier films--it consumes its good ideas at such a relentless and breathless pace that by the time it hits the halfway point, it has run out of them and is forced to pretty much run on fumes for the next hour. In this case, the fumes consist of an endless battle between Wikus and his alien friends and the various forces pursuing them that results in hundreds of bad guys exploding into bursts of blood at the hands of our heroes. This is entertaining enough for a while but it eventually grows monotonous after a while and as a result, the big climax almost feels like an afterthought. Even Blomkamp seems a little bored with the proceedings towards the end--while the final reels are polished and professional enough, they lack the energy that he brought to the earlier scenes.

This is not to say that “District 9” is a bad movie by any means--it is a well-made and frequently entertaining work with enough originality to set it apart from most of the other big-budget genre items to appear over the last few months. It just lacks that final burst of inspiration that could have transformed a really good movie into a potentially great one. Nevertheless, it is at least ambitious enough to attempt to do something new and for that alone, it is worth seeing. As for Blomkamp, while the final result may not be flawless, he does show enough verve and talent behind the camera to ensure that his dance card will be filled for years to come--so much so, in fact, that if those aforementioned powers-that-be came rushing back to offer him the chance to do “Halo” again, don’t be surprised if he turns them down flat.

Directed & Written by:    Neill Blomkamp
Starring:    Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
Released:    08/14/09 (USA-wide)
Length:    113 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive

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