Monday, March 7, 2011

Neill Blomkamp's Awkward Mix Of V, Cloverfield And 28 Days Later: District 9 Flops.

The Good: Interesting story, Good special effects, Tight on the technical merits
The Bad: Gross, Pacing, Familiar plot structure, Characters it is hard to be empathetic with.
The Basics: Disturbing, gory and plotted with too many early revelations/predictability, District 9 is unpleasant to watch and easy to not recommend.

Every now and then, there comes a film where it is damn near impossible for me to rate because no matter how I feel about the film, when I objectively look at the technical aspects - plot, acting, character, and special effects - the movie is above average on all the important fronts. Unfortunately, sometimes, the sum of the parts does not add up to something worth watching. The last time I felt such a strong dilemma after seeing a film in the theater was when I watched 28 Weeks Later. There, I felt the film showed all of the things that the first film had been smart enough not to put on screen. Still, on the technical aspects, it had a lot that makes that style of viral apocalypse film interesting. Unfortunately, as I consider District 9, the first full cinematic-length film by director Neill Blomkamp, I find myself struggling to muster up the enthusiasm to even stay on the fence about the film.

For those who've not heard of District 9, it is being advertised heavily with the name Peter Jackson associated with it, much the way Cloverfield rode the name J.J. Abrams. Like Cloverfield to Abrams, District 9 only has legendary director Peter Jackson aboard as a producer. He was not involved in the writing, directing or otherwise creating District 9. The references to Cloverfield and the sequel to 28 Days Later are not inapt; District 9 is an unfortunate collision between Cloverfield in terms of camerawork and gore and 28 Days Later in terms of plot structure. Throw in the classic television mini-series V (reviewed here!) and there is nothing new in District 9. But where V made humans into chattel, here the alien visitors, the "prawn" are an oppressed minority. And the social commentary is quickly undone in favor of gore, violence and a stomach-churning sense of predictability and constant menace that is virtually unwatchable.

In 1982, a single alien spacecraft came to rest in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa. When its inhabitants did not make themselves known, human salvage teams entered the ship, discovered the million refugees starving within and did the humanitarian thing; they brought those inside down to Earth to give them aid. There, they are confined to the ghetto of "District 9," where they are segregated from humans and are given a chance to survive on their own. They are exploited by Nigerians, live off the scraps of humanity and are rumored to steal and kill outside the District for whatever they need. Tensions between humans and the aliens, nicknamed the prawn because of their appearance, rise and a weapons company, MNU (Multi-National United), is charged with relocating the prawn to a new district further away from humans, despite the fact that they seem to have no concept of land ownership. MNU has an ulterior motive; they want the weapons the prawn have brought with them and the key to making them work, which seems to be tied into the prawn DNA.

This is where the story of Wikus Van De Merwe begins, as he is promoted at MNU to lead the relocation effort. Wikus wakes up to begin evicting the prawn and leads a convoy into District 9 to evict prawn, confiscate weapons and avoid the Nigerian gangsters who exploit the prawn and their weapons. However, early in the day, Wikus is exposed to a fluid being hidden by a prawn (Christopher) which begins to transform his wounded arm into a prawn arm. The transformation soon comes to the attention of MNU officials, including Wikus's father-in-law, who soon realize that Wikus now provides the key to utilizing prawn weaponry as his alien arm allows him to use their firearms. Fleeing MNU, Wikus heads back to District 9 to avoid being killed and to try to undo the horrible transformation he is undergoing.

On the technical aspects, District 9 seems like it would be incredibly original and compelling. Unfortunately, it falls flat, first through gore that is so repugnant one would think Quentin Tarantino had an uncredited role in the special effects department, then through a plot pattern that so closely mimics other (better) films that one wonders how this escaped the notice of the Powers That Be. "District 9" also is plagued by an almost complete lack of sensibility for basic continuity. So, that is where I'll start. District 9 opens as a documentary with interviews from people alluding to Wikus Van De Merwe and the entire prawn problem. Sociologists and family members are interviewed and Wikus is shown before and as he is promoted to head the MNU relocation of the prawn. Here, the sloppy, handheld camerawork makes perfect sense as it is a clumsy documentary being assembled before our eyes. However, as the film goes on, Wikus loses his cameraman and the film travels away from anyone closely associated with Wikus and MNU. As a result, handheld work that mimics the style of the original documentary makes no real sense as prawn talk among themselves as they hide from MNU forces or when gore coats the camera lens when people are blown up several meters away. Yes, it becomes that type of movie. After the documentary essentially ends with Wikus vomiting all over and leaving work for the day, it degenerates into a sloppy-looking film where people are blown up on screen and their entrails splatter onto the screen.

This lack of continuity sense is troubling, even to those who like to shut their brains off when they watch movies. More than that, the level of gore is excessive and it is troubling to such an extent it is hard to see how there is supposed to be any entertainment value to District 9. Clearly, the film is trying to make social commentaries about how humans treat one another and how poorly a first contact situation could go, but the sense of stark realism to the movie makes it unpleasant to watch on any level (my wife, who was feeling a little queasy before the film, walked out because the gore was too much for her and I noticed she was not the only one, which says a lot given that it was a free screening we were attending!). The camerawork and the sheer volume of gore and psychologically troubling moments - Wikus is tortured in order to have him activate prawn weaponry - are not entertaining and they are frequently nauseating.

This continues well into the latest portion of the film where the movie becomes a fairly generic science fiction/action flick and finally a very traditional science fiction ending. The movie gets better in the final ten minutes, but by that point, it is so hard to care about Wikus, the prawn, the military or anything but the ending of the film (while District 9 clearly sets up a sequel, there are no scenes after the closing credits to stay for). Unfortunately, even as the movie improves some, it becomes more familiar and troublingly predictable. Here is where the connection to 28 Days Later becomes fully realized. The plot of District 9 is structured almost identically to 28 Days Later. Just as the protagonist in 28 Days Later is given excessive exposition, set into a world that is unsettling, ends up on the run from it, only to arrive in a safe harbor that is anything but, District 9 takes the viewer on the very same journey. The military at the climax of 28 Days Later are replaced with Nigerians and the Infected are replaced by prawn, but essentially, they are the same movie . . . only 28 Days Later got there first and did it better.

Unfortunately, on the technical merits, it is hard to criticize District 9 and despite its constant sense of nausea-inducing direction, the film is not one of the worst I've seen this year. While the plot structure is familiar, the specific plot is fairly original and even engaging. While the pacing of the movie and the documentary style reveal far too much about who lives, who dies and the like, Wikus is as very real and often likable protagonist. Wikus is a common bureaucrat who is having arguably the worst 72+ hours of his life. In this, Wikus is empathetic and the performance by Sharlto Copley is nothing short of masterful. Copley is realistic, caught looking terrified at all of the right moments and he pleads for his life in ways that are heartwrenching. Copley is the everyman (this is the first work he has actually acted in, though he went on to do The A-Team, reviewed here!) and his role in District 9 is to play the everyman and make the viewers care about his predicament.

But just as the opening scrawl of Cloverfield undermined that film for anyone watching who had their brain still turned on, District 9 is hampered by giving too much of the wrong information at the outset. While the movie sets up well the prawn situation and the need to relocate them, the way others talk about Wikus reveals far too much and it cheats some of the big emotional moments. So, too, does the way that District 9 eventually panders to the big budget special effects film audience by recreating a Transformers-style mech and having that featured near the end of the movie (in truth, the moment it appears on screen as part of the Nigerian weapons influence in District 9, it is so utterly predictable that it would resurface, it's almost like we've seen it before - cough, Aliens!).

What District 9 does well outside the performance by Copley - which is consistently wonderful even after we don't care at all about what happens to him - is the special effects. The prawn look real as opposed to the CG constructs that they actually are. The prawn and the mech at the end are all presented with realistic sensibilities as far as lighting and movement go and the film looks good in that regard. Even the gore is realistic and this is part of what makes the movie so troubling, from the exploding people, the vomiting black bile to the quiet moments where a man quietly removes his own fingernails or looks over a medical experiment table with vivisected aliens on it. What none of the promotions for District 9 accurately capture is the level of gore and the psychologically disturbing nature of almost the entire film.

District 9 is supposed to be unsettling and it succeeds at that. The problem is, in succeeding with what it sets out to do, the movie loses any watchability and becomes impossible to recommend to anyone who is looking to be entertained or challenged by what they are watching.

For other science fiction horror films, please check out my reviews of:
Alien Vs. Predator
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page for organized lists of all I have reviewed!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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