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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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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!