Monday, August 17, 2009

Be An Alien

I was going to call District 9 the last gasp of the summer movie season but that title really belongs to G.I. Joe. The latter is a stupid, mindless action film that tends to be forgotten pretty much as you're walking out of the theater. This is typical of most movies you see in the summer and why, when people are asked how G.I. Joe was, the answer tends to be, "It was awesome," with no details given. District 9, on the other hand, is intelligent and thought provoking while still having exciting action scenes. This means the description for this movie will be, "It was awesome. There were these aliens and junk." Sure, that's not much better, but look at it as baby steps.

I was worried I wouldn't like District 9 because I had never seen the other eight District movies but it turns out my fears were unfounded since this isn't a sequel. Although the writer and director, Neill Blomkamp, did make a short feature a few years ago that became the basis for District 9. If you haven't seen the movie, you can get a good taste of it here (though the alien battle suit looks much better in the movie as opposed to the one in the short that looks like something made by cub scouts).

In the world of District 9, an alien ship landed in the South African city of Johannesburg in 1982. The reasons aren't 100% clear but it looks like they ran out of food for the 1.8 million alien passengers. The very large ship is still hovering over the city to this day while its inhabitants were set up in a camp that eventually became known as District 9. After spending a quarter century living in a slum, the aliens, derisively referred to by the locals as Prawns due to their vague resemblance to shellfish, are now often a very dangerous bunch. The citizens of South Africa hate and denounce the behavior that they have helped create. I'm not sure if Americans will notice the significance of black South Africans talking about the Prawns in the same way that white Afrikaners would talk about them during Apartheid rule, saying that they are a lesser, inherently stupid and violent race who deserve the oppression they receive.

The lead character is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a mid level bureaucrat with a military contractor called MNU. Wikus is what I would call a small man. While not a horrible human being, he is the kind of person who will abuse power when it's given to him. He's risen as far as he has because he had to good fortune to marry the daughter of MNU's CEO. Because of this, Wikus is put in charge of supervising a mass relocation of the Prawns away from Johannesburg to a full fledged internment camp away from the general population.

Wikus expresses a certain amount of glee in the way that he's able to cruelly manipulate and push around the Prawns. This really shows up when, during the relocation, they discover an unauthorized alien incubator station (the Prawns must attain a license to have kids) and set it on fire. Wikus looks like he's closing to orgasm when talks about the wonderful popping sound that the baby Prawns make as they burn.

Things change for Wikus when he uncovers an unknown alien fluid and accidentally gets sprayed with it. It turns out the Prawns aren't as stupid as they thought. The fluid is a fuel they want to use to operate a command module they have hidden for over two decades that will allow them to take their mothership out of orbit. An unfortunate side effect of the fluid is that a human who gets exposed to it eventually turns into a Prawn. You can now see Wikus' problem. His left arm is the first thing to fully transform on him and his bosses at MNU see this as an opportunity. One problem they've always had is that alien technology is bioengineered so only they can use it and that includes their awesome energy weapons. Wikus, though, can now fire those weapons with his left hand. This gives them, with the approval of his father-in-law, the idea to dissect and study Wikus so he escapes and turns to the aliens that, up till now, he considered a lesser species.

District 9 is not perfect, but compared to just about everything that's come out this summer, it's Citizen Kane. It has some logical inconsistencies (I think Wikus would have sought medical treatment when his fingernails started falling out, for example) but it mostly tries to make sense and follow the internal logic of the story. Man, it seems so odd to use words like "logical" and "make sense" when talking about a science fiction film. At this point in the review I'm usually complaining about how the filmmakers reached a point in the story where they said, "Screw it, let's just blow everything up," or solved the plot's conflict by doing something impossible, like in Independence Day when they used a MacBook, a computer incompatible with 80% of the computers on this planet, to interface with alien technology and plant a virus. In District 9, even when stuff does start to blow up real good, it blows up for smart and logical reasons.

The movie 9 comes out next month and that looks like it might also be an intelligent and imaginative science fiction film. I have a feeling this will spoil me and make me think that Roland Emmerich's 2012 coming out in November will be smart too when, actually, it will probably look like it was made by people with brain damage.

1 comment:

Michael Clear said...

I wasn't going to explain the title but I think I'll be the only one who gets the joke so...

Another movie coming out this year with the number 9 in the title is the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine. One of the songs in that is "Be Italian" hence the title "Be An Alien". Funny? I thought so.