By Marco Chacon
Aug 16, 2009 08:03 PM EST

District 9 Theatrical Review

District 9 Theatrical Review
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In 1966, the apartheid government forcibly relocated 60,000 people from District 6 in Cape Town. Today we see a science fiction analogue of that in the 2009 movie District 9 by Neill Blomkamp.  Apparently, Neill got the support of Peter Jackson when negotiations for a movie version of Halo fell through.  Neill had done a film short about aliens who landed in Johannesburg and are housed in a sprawling slum district: District 9.

The aliens, the 'prawn', are unsettling looking insectoids.  It is speculated that they come from a hive-culture, and the leaders are all dead (or something). Therefore, they are aimless, not too bright, and fairly destructive.  They are also prey for Nigerian tribal gangs who take advantage of them, and they are overseen by a multi-national corporation that is responsible for their welfare and security.

The prawn are done by the now several studios including best-of-breed, Weta, and the F/x, as a whole look fantastic.  When I read that they were all CGI (save for some dead alien bodies), I was shocked.  I would have thought that at least some of them were puppets.  A lot of the movie takes place in a shockingly poor slum with dead animal carcasses about, and the shelters' collapsing walls.  It turns out none of that is CGI; those are real slums, and the inhabitants were relocated to better government housing to make the movie.  The dead animals were also mostly real.

District 9 is shot in a hybrid of 'in story' documentary, documentary-style film making, and straight up action-film camera work.  It is one of the more a vaunt guard things about it, and it doesn't always work well. I found it disconcerting to switch from documentary-cam to the lens of the omniscient narrative.  The film also has some action-movie sensibilities that can be jarring since the atmosphere is that of a foreign movie with a deep social message.

Unfortunately, I have to stop there; the less you know going in, I believe the more you will enjoy it.  District 9 is, all told, a stunning piece of work.  The backdrops, invariably featuring the massive, hovering mother ship with the small 'fly-specs' of helicopters buzzing around is ominous, real looking, and strikes exactly the right notes.  The aliens-as-underclass is something we have seen in mainstream movies like Men in Black and Alien Nation; but with the segregated slum and armored human security troops, it is updated in a way that I found resonant.

District 9 is not so daring as to not recognizably be a Hollywood movie. There are shoot outs, explosions, a lack of vineyards or mimes, and so on.  The difference between District 9 and something like Independence Day is not primarily that D-9 is smarter than ID4 (it is -- much).  It isn't primarily that it is "more artistic" or has more "message" (it does).  The primary difference is that D-9 has a vision under its hood that ID4 emphatically lacked.  That vision is, despite the documentary flavor, not 'fidelity to real life' (as it, maybe, pretends to), and that may hurt it for some viewers.

The vision D-9 has is one of a hard, hard look at a dark, real vision of humanity where science fiction is the lens that allows us to look without it becoming a message movie and without it being a stuffy drama.  This is, in my opinion, one of the things that science fiction does better than just about anything else.  Science fiction can teach us real science (usually this is in the purview of 'hard science fiction').  It can dress up a dramatic story with the trappings of rockets and ray guns (this is 'space opera').  Hopefully, when it gives us an insightful window, into a real life social issue and gives it a science-fiction context that this is 'social science fiction'. This is what District 9 has that ID4 never approached.

It rivals Children of Men for its handling of the human condition, and that is far too rare to go unremarked on.  While District 9 does give us a blood-and-guts fire-fight towards the end, I have to admit that by the time it got there, I was ready for them to bring it on.  The movie creates a sense of tension that I have read some viewers found unpleasant, and it can leave us wondering if the protagonists will 'make it' is a sign that it has foreign-film sensibilities.  Where its attention to violence may not be daring enough, I found its total package to be surprising, inventive, and, ultimately, effective.

It is not the boldest film I have ever seen, but it is certainly bold enough.
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MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Distributed By: TriStar Pictures

For more information about District 9 visit the FlickDirect Movie Database.

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