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05 September 2009 @ 12:33 am
District 9  
We've been meaning to see Harry Potter VI since it came out in Sydney, and failing each time. For our most recent failure, we actually made it to the cinema, but too late for Potter, and so saw District 9 instead.

It was an excellent choice.

Set in a similar, but different, South Africa, District 9 tells the story of an Alien ship that came to a halt above Johannesburg in 1982. After hovering mid-air for a few months, it was finally cracked open to reveal hundreds of thousands of starving, dying aliens. In a massive humanitarian effort they were moved to Earth and settled in District 9 just outside of Jo'Burg. Now, in 2010, the numbers in the camp are approaching 2 million; the camp is a slum, there is endemic crime in the area (from both the aliens and the Nigerian criminal elements who have moved in to scam the camp inhabitants) and the local humans are demanding that Things Change.

While it's true that the aliens have a hugely advanced technology, for the most part it is useless to them. The ship requires a command module that was lost shortly after their arrival on Earth. To power it, fluid is needed, and they have no known way to produce it, and while their weapons are superior, their numbers aren't, so they trade weapons for food, ideally catfood. Though they are stronger than humans, they are also lost and dispossessed, and function more as a rabble than a community.

Multinational United (MNU) is the private entity in charge of the camp, and they are about to start a process of relocation, moving the aliens to the more distant, more 'modern' District 10. Wikus van de Merwe, a semi-competent functionary, is the man in charge of the move. His leadership has less to do with skill than the fact he married the boss's daughter. The film opens in a hand-held documentary style as we follow Wikus though the camp on the first day of handing out eviction notices.

Here we are eyewitnesses to the standard human reactions to the 'prawns' -- as the spindly, spiny aliens are known. For the most part bullying patronage is employed, when that doesn't work, truncheons and then guns are used. In a nod to some of the greater moments in privately contracted diplomacy of the last 20 years, every functionary is followed by an armoured car of heavily begunned goons, who are only too happy to shoot first and not worry about the questions. Obviously it's regrettable if the prawns are killed, but they need to understand that cooperation is not optional. With most of the aliens unable to read or converse with skill, Wikus rams through the eviction notices with all the sympathy of an 18th century Scottish landlord, stopping along the way to 'abort' a shedful of alien eggs. 'Because the little buggers just breed and breed!'

As Wikus moves with indiscriminate destruction through the camp, an alien known to MNU as Christopher Johnson, working with his brilliant son and an adult friend, is frantically putting the final touches to an experiment he hopes will finally allow them to leave this hell hole forever. When the knock at the door comes, Christopher shoves the vial of precious fluid they have harvested into the hands of his friend and escapes out the back door to protect his son.

Wikus's level of performance excellence is maintained, and the other alien is killed, shortly before Wikus himself is exposed to the fluid.

That night Wikus returns home to his wife Tania to find a party celebrating his success underway. His Father-in-law is there, publicly praising him, while privately taking him to one side to ask what the hell happened. Wikus babbles apologies, but incoherently. Something is horribly, horribly wrong with him and he collapses, spewing bile, across the cake and dining table.

Whisked off to an MNU research facility, Wikus awakes to find himself on a gurney with scientists clustered around him. His arm, which had been injured in the evictions, is unbandaged to reveal a 'Prawn' appendage: the exposure to the alien fluid has begun to alter his DNA and he is metamorphosing into one of 'them'. His Father-in-law appears beside his bed, a picture of concern. Not for Wikus, though, rather, for whether or not this represents the dream they have held ever since MNU first obtained alien technology, for humans have never been able to operate it: can Wikus's chimeric DNA make it work? And if it can, how many pieces can they cut him into?

From here, the film develops into one of the most anxiety-filled, edge-of-the-seat hour and a bits I have ever spent in a cinema. Wikus fights to save himself and return his body to normal so that he can return to his beloved Tania. MNU and their hired goons are determined to both vivisect him and to shift the alien problem out of the way so they can comb the camp for more tech. Christopher Johnson is desperate to keep his son safe, and to rescue his people. These competing desires conflicting and interacting fuel the story that follows; a story that is filled with humour, violence, hope and casual horror.

Obviously a major part of the film is a semi-satiric re-imagining of the apartheid regime (though, interestingly, apartheid for humans is not mentioned, even though the story crosses the last 12 years of that period. All the big bosses are still white, though, and many of the functionaries and hoi polloi black and coloured, so the subtext is easy to spot.) Yet longer bows are drawn. Iraq is referenced, the despair and dehumanisation of refugee camps, and, I think, Australia's Pacific Solution strategies. Underneath all of the politics the story focusses on what makes us human; just as all those real world politics made us take the same focus.

Wikus is a terrible hero. He is small-minded and selfish and again and again leaves the watcher convinced that everything is doomed through his actions. Christopher Johnson is far more heroic, for all that he is a digitally rendered crustacean-like alien. He recognises that his needs are just as selfish as Wikus's, and yet there are 1.8 million of his people counting on his selfishness.

As the bad guys, Piet Smith, Wikus's father-in-law and MNU head honcho, is a suitably venal bastard, more than happy to leave his daughter a widow if it means he can make a few billions in armament sales. His resemblance to P.W. Botha in name and manner can't be accidental. Kobus, the head hired goon, makes the Blackwater set look like a particularly genteel member of the Oxford Union Standing Committee, while Obesandjo, the head Nigerian gangster, acts as though he honed his skills in the Congo.

I watched a good third of the film with one hand half-obscuring my face (a style perfected through years of Doctor Who), and I think I may have bruised Mr Brammers's arm, I was just so anxious and unable to predict what would happen. It's a bloodier film than I would normally watch, but one with such intelligence and wit behind the bloodiness that I was more than able to cope with it (and I mean genuine wit, not the Tarantino-esque facsimiles so often attempted by hyperviolent films). The violence was not without reason, and the choppy hand-held camera work of the first section segues seamlessly into a broader filmic view for the majority of the film.

The performances were spectacular, as was the script. The team who produced it had worked on the project for some years before they obtained funding from Peter Jackson, so the film comes with high-quality Weta CGI, but with the genuinely good storytelling that is beaten out of most big-budget films. On the night we saw it, a good half the audience were young boys expecting a Halo-esque action flick, which they got, but which came with a side-serving of thinking. The other half were people like me, who came out satisfied with our political fixes, along with the enjoyment of an excellently paced action flick. If you're a fan of anything from Cry, the Beloved Country to The Fifth Element, you'll love District 9, too.


 
 
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Eeyeeyore9990 on September 4th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
I agree with everything you said here, with one exception. The way they filmed it (the jerky camera style--dunno what that's called) left me nauseated for the remainder of the day. I am very RARELY motion-sick, but this did me in. If I had a weaker stomach, I would have tossed my cookies halfway through the movie. Nothing to do with the gore-aspects of the movie (fake blood/real blood doesn't bother me a bit), just the woozy camera. Ugh.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 4th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
Yes, I have heard that some people have real issues with hand-held camera work, so sorry you're one!

I'm one of those annoying people who stands on the deck of a boat in a storm and says 'Is that an albatross?' I think my inner ears learned to adapt early on thanks to Dad's erratic driving stylings. (Though put me in a confined space and I am completely useless. Which is not that handy as the 21st century has far more confined spaces than boats.)
Eeyeeyore9990 on September 4th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
LOL, the funny part is that I never get seasick, and I've only been bus-sick once. Carsick... never? That I can recall, anyway. But every movie like this makes me ill. I have no idea what it is about movies that affect me this way when RL does not.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 4th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
Probably because in RL there are other sensory inputs that you can focus on to over-ride the inner-ear fuss; sea winds, still horizons, less-out-of-sync distances. In the cinema, it's a giant near-focus field without anything like a cool breeze to help and with stale smells and booming noise to make it worse.

A smart cinema operator would have cool ariconditioning with peppermint in the vents!
Meredythmeredyth_13 on September 4th, 2009 10:20 pm (UTC)
Ooooh :( - Just caught sight of Eeyore's comments. I got the impression from your review that it was only the opening sequences, which I was prepared to not look at if necessary.

I'm also one of those seriously affected by hand-held camera work (horses + brain injury = stupid). If it's a feature throughout the film, I seriously won't be able to watch it - at least on the big screen. :(
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 5th, 2009 03:19 am (UTC)
It's the first 20 or so minutes, after which it reverts to normal camera work, so not the whole film but not an inconsequential amount, either.
Vashtanvashtan on September 4th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, I want to see this /so/ much. So, so much. Especially after your review, thank you!
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 5th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC)
I think that you will really enjoy it. On the one hand, it is largely a shoot-em-up, but on the other it was played with such conviction and the characters are all so flawed, that it is one where you are not really sure what will happen until the end.
Vashtanvashtan on September 6th, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC)
Now I have to drag the boy away from his MASSIVE WWII strategy game that has swallowed him like a black hole... hopefully next weekend, or I go & see it alone.
nwfairy: Dan&Lauireglasses wacthmennwfairy on September 4th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
I LOVED D9

Have you checked out some of the websites they're pretty cool too
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 5th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC)
I haven't yet, but will! Thanks for the tip!
prone to mischieftreacle_tartlet on September 4th, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
Hand-held camera work? Eep!
*has flashback to sea-sick Bourne Supremacy experience*
But it does sound excellent, and is on my list of films to go and see (and I probably have more chance of dragging Blondie along to District 9 than I do to
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Hand-held camera work? Eep!
*has flashback to sea-sick <i>Bourne Supremacy</i> experience*
But it does sound excellent, and is on my list of films to go and see (and I probably have more chance of dragging Blondie along to <i>District 9</i> than I do to <HP6</i>).
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 5th, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
It's only for the first 20 minutes, and I have to say that a lot of it was not spectacularly choppy, but the sequences of running and being in the trucks would probably be best viewed by you between fingers. I think His Luciusness would like it a great deal ;-)
Meredythmeredyth_13 on September 4th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
I have scrolled past the spoilery bits, to thank you for the excellent rec and review - C and I have been debating whether to see this one, but you've settled the conversation firmly in the positive.

It's so rare to find SF with any kind of cohesive story on film, let alone good storytelling. I love the genre, but I am so very often frustrated by it.

:D
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 5th, 2009 03:24 am (UTC)
Yes, there's not a lot of it out there. Serenity was probably the last I saw that had a detailed and consistent story behind it. Explosions and cool tech are NOT substitutes!
girl; obsessed: hp - warcomplications_g on September 4th, 2009 11:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, this sounds amazing. I definitely know what I want to go see next. :) Me and my dad love these kinds of political films.
Kaleidoscope Heart: Drew: upsweptviridescence on September 5th, 2009 01:20 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this. I tried to watch it, but ended up leaving after about ten minutes (right after Wikus torched the nest of eggs) due to the nausea-inducing documentary-style filming. I don't usually get motion-sick, but for some reason the filming just made my head spin and stomach churn. I thought that it looked like it would be a great social commentary, felt like I still wanted to see it, but figured I'd wait until it comes out on DVD so I can deal with the filming better (being able to pause as necessary would really help). But from what you've posted, we left JUST before it got interesting (and good) and should have stuck it out a little longer. So now I'm kicking myself. I want try to see it again and tough out the first little bit. So thanks!
trichinopoly ash: barney: freeze frame high five!aldehyde on September 5th, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
so happy you enjoyed this film, brammers!@ i think it's one of the best of 2009, and it's really quite exceptional.