August 22, 2009
District 9 (2009) ***1/2
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
I just finished eating lunch. Either today or tomorrow, I need to go grocery shopping, and I was tempted to go before I ate; thank goodness I did not. Everyone knows that one shouldn't go food shopping when hungry. Inevitably, one will buy more food than one needs. Perhaps I ought to go after writing this review since I've already eaten, and as such, I won't crave every item in the store out of impulse due to hunger.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that first-time director Neill Blomkamp waits until he's on the verge of passing out from starvation before venturing out to buy groceries--that is if District 9 is any indication of his desire to indulge without restraint. This grisly, manic sci-fi romp orders everything off the menu in terms of style and action, and the result, though admittedly tasty, doesn't digest easily.
That being said, the menu itself is quite impressive, and therein ends the food metaphor (for now). Blomkamp, along with co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell, knows how to masterfully tell a story that's teeming with socially-conscious allegory, and the world of Johannesburg existing under a hovering alien spaceship feels completely authentic from beginning to end. The setup to the spazzed out, uber-violent final act does its job brilliantly, providing moments of queasy disgust while never feeling gratuitous. Therefore, I share in the fanboy excitement for District 9, which has propelled this sleeper film with a 30 million dollar budget into a huge hit thus far at the box office--though my excitement is mixed with serious criticisms.
But before I open myself to anonymous comments from venom-spewing D9 geeks accusing me of having an inappropriate relationship with my mother. let me tell you what the movie is about. Sharlto Copley, a first time leading actor, plays Wikus Van De Merwe, a geeky administrator who received a promotion because his wife is the daughter of the head of defense company MNU, which is in charge of containing the swelling alien population in Johannesburg, South Africa. Two decades prior, a spaceship appeared in the skies above the city, and when humans entered, they found the aliens to be controllable and relatively calm. In order to maintain order, they were placed in ghettoized districts (a la apartheid) which have been run down by Nigerian crime lords as well as horrendous poverty and rampant xenophobia from humans all over the world. Under the guise of cracking down on producing weapons which humans aren't able to figure out, Wikus leads a roundup of aliens from their homes, and in doing so, he inadvertently sprays himself with a powerful chemical. MTU confiscates the tube containing the chemical, and soon, Wikus begins to suffer from some truly heinous side-effects due to his exposure. Eventually, the side-effects escalate beyond imagination, which results in an elaborate chase sequence followed by a tense exchange between the humans and the aliens which divulges serious injustices.
Now onto my criticisms. First of all, Sharlto Copley has moments of tense greatness, not unlike a nubile screaming girl in a horror film. Unfortunately, the first half-hour of his performance, before the fingernails start falling off, plays out like he is making fun of Wikus instead of fully realizing the imperfections on the surface of an otherwise good-hearted man. Copley gets the job done overall, and it will be interesting to see what he does next and whether or not he's able to pull off actual tempered acting.
Second, Blomkamp inexplicably breaks the rules he establishes himself regarding the unseen character of the cameraman filming what seems to be either a newsstory or a documentary. The first act plays out as if it's the final product of a show of some kind profiling Wikus who proves to be a polarizing figure to the talking heads commenting on his ultimate fate, which the audience doesn't find out until the film's conclusion. Later, Wikus escapes after being brutally tortured, and at that point, there's no way that the footage we are seeing could have been captured by a documentarian. From here, District 9 simply plays out like an ordinary action film, except at times, it reverts back to security camera shots and news reports as if we are still watching some kind of meta-production at work. For the most part, all of these elements are executed effectively. My only problem is that the rules of storytelling ultimately mean nothing at all when they contradict themselves. Perhaps Blomkamp could have seen his off-beat vision all the way through. Instead, District 9 ultimately feels like a stylistically incoherent smorgasbord of impressive directorial techniques.
Finally, the last third plays out like a seizure-inducing action romp in the vane of something infinitely less successful like Terminator Salvation or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A comparison could probably also be made with GI-Joe or Transformers 2, but I haven't seen either of those at this point. There's little sense of who's doing what to whom during the extended car chases and shoot-outs, and while many of the effects are exhilarating--I personally thought the alien guns were pretty awesome--ultimately, I felt bored after completely giving up trying to follow what's going on in detail. I knew that every four minutes or so, a head is going to explode, and sure enough, that's exactly what happens. The first hour had me completely on edge. The last forty minutes had me wondering how much longer until I could leave the theater!
Still, District 9 at least provides audiences with ideas, and for that reason, it ought to be celebrated and seen. Yet, Blomkamp simply throws too many ideas into the pot, and the result is a final product, made with impeccably rich ingredients, which unfortunately doesn't fuse as well as it could have if the chef chose to cook with restraint.