Thursday, August 13, 2009

District 9 is Heartbreaking, Horrifying and Ambiguous

I have just returned from the theater where I saw the 12:01 showing of District 9. I was expecting certain things from this film, but it gave me something completely different.

This review will be filled with spoilers, so beware.

The digital print of D-9 was wonderful to watch. The "real life" parts were clean and crisp and much different from the documentary footage. Shaky cam is used, but minimally and I believe, only to achieve a certain mood.

Based on the short "Alive in Joburg" by Neil Blomkamp, District 9 tells the story of the beginning stages of moving the aliens to a new settlement where things would be more orderly and more restricted. The aliens are called "Prawn" by the humans. It is a derogatory term, much like "skin-job" was in Blade Runner.

This is the first glimpse that we as the viewer get into the world that the humans and Prawn live in. Prawn are treated as sub-human and their behavior does nothing to dissuade that fact. They are scavengers, they eat rubber and cat food and their reproduction cycle is horrific to witness if you are not prepared properly.

The MNU (Multi-National United,) a private corporation, is apparently in charge of all of the legal and "governmental" proceedings in D-9. This is where the story started to show it's true colors. On the surface, MNU is interested in moving the aliens, but instead of trying to talk it out with them (the aliens do not seem to have any type of leadership structure) they employ private contractors to do the back up military type work. Think Blackwater with an even meaner streak.

The humans in the film are despicable. They think nothing of disconnecting feeding tubes to infants pods while they are incubating. One man even laughs as he points out the sound of the pods popping while they burn. All I could think is, this is what happens. When we get too familiar with the fantastic, this is what would happen. Contact with alien life should have been the milestone in these people's lives, but sadly, it's not. Instead of subjugating each other, they do it to the Prawns.

The alien that we get to know the most in named Christopher. It's not clear when you first meet him exactly what he is up to, but he knows how to play by the rules and it would appear that he is smarter than the rest of his kind. He plays a major role in the film and so does his son.

I feared for the safety of Christopher's son every time he was on the screen. Because there are no recognizable stars in the film, it helped make it more believable and more dangerous for all involved. Anything could happen to anyone at any time. That unease worked perfectly with the unrest that is stirred up between the aliens, the MNU and the Nigerian gangs.

Wikus van der Merwe who is wonderfully played by Sharlto Copley, is the human focus of the film. When he gets a face full of a black liquid that Christopher has been gathering and distilling for 20 years, his life spirals out of his control. The liquid is a kind of alien fuel, but is also is a powerful genetic re-sequencer. The spray of liquid starts to turn Wikus into a Prawn.

Alien weaponry is powerful. Very powerful. That is the underlying reason that the MNU want to move the aliens. They want to confiscated all the weaponry in District 9. However, it is all coded to the alien's genetic pattern. This means that humans can not use them. To a human, a sonic rifle is just a neat looking orange and white prop. But, since Wikus has started to change, the MNU is very interested in him. After he is captured, you get to see the slimy underbelly of the people in charge of MNU. They want the tech and they don't care how they get it. After long and torturous tests with Wikus, pig carcasses, and an array of alien weapons, the MNU top it off with a live fire test on a terrified alien. An alien with cross hairs spray painted on his carapace. All the while, Wikus is refusing to fire the weapon, saying he would if it was a dead pig. The MNU agent hits him with a stun baton, forcing his muscles to contract and firing the weapon, vaporizing the alien. After the successful tests, there is a chilling conversation held over Wikus as he is restrained on an operating table. MNU wants to know how and why he is changing and they are going to cut him apart to find the answer.

The weapons are brutal. You can almost understand how someone could be so single minded in purpose that human life holds no meaning to them anymore. I was actually surprised at some of the weapons and what they did to their targets. Gravity guns, lightning cannons, grenade launchers that explode in an electrically charged cloud. Normally I would really be enjoying the rampage of voilence that the film showed, but this felt different. This felt one sided. Then it switched sides. No one side was completely right, and neither was completely wrong.

District 9 was a great film, of that I have no doubt. The ending was ambiguous and a downer. I don't think that the intention was to leave it open for a sequel, even though you could pick up right where it left off. It was sad. It shines a light on racism and the dark part of humanity. I wasn't ready for it to have such an impact.

This type of story is just like the best of them. It is all about the characters. The setting is secondary. The aliens are odd looking and in no way look human, but you really start to feel for them right in the beginning. They are trusting, and of course, that is exploited to uncomfortable ends.

I think a lot of people will write this off as just a gory sci-fi movie. I believe it is much more. Look a little deeper and see what is just under the surface. It may upset you to think that this might be how we treat another race, (even though our history as humans is rife with examples) but can you really tell me that where there is a ludicrous profit to be made, everyone will behave ethically?

I sincerely doubt it.

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