District 9 Movie Review (Mania.com)
Review Date: Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Aren't the best summer movies supposed to come out before August? In those heady days around Memorial Day, when the season seems fresh and the possibilities are endless? Before dozens of crappy sequels and would-be Dark Knights grind our souls to dust? August is supposed to be the dumping ground, the ash heap, the place where flawed genre concepts go to die. It exists to winnow the last little bit of cash from our numbed fingers: to hustle some carnival barker sleaze past us after three months of event pictures have pounded any sense of good taste or rational judgment into oblivion.
And yet here sits District 9--the best non-Pixar film of the season, squatting amid the debris like a Tiffany's necklace in a landfill. To be sure, it remains a proud B-movie, with a concept cribbed from Alien Nation and held together by the remains of producer Peter Jackson's aborted Halo movie. And yet it brims with breathtaking originality, putting dozens of larger pictures to shame with its wit, soulfulness and imagination. The splat factor remains quite high, fully justifying its R-rating and capped by a spectacular extended fight which leaves the viewer exhausted. To a certain extent, such earthy pleasures are fully the point of the exercise. But District 9 refuses to be bound by them, girding its drive-in credentials with humanity, depth, and an admittedly obvious but deftly executed message about just how inhuman we humans can be.
Full credit goes to South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, mentored by Jackson and making his directorial debut here. He posits a near future in which an alien ship has appeared over Johannesburg and dumped its scuttling cargo right into our laps. The vessel's inhabitants--known derivatively as "prawns"--belong to a hive-like civilization, highly advanced yet lacking a leadership caste for reasons unknown. That leaves two million drones--filthy, bad-tempered, utterly without motivation or direction, and yet in need of immediate care. The government naturally starts out with the best of intentions, but the earth-bound district they establish for the aliens quickly deteriorates into a slum. Predators of various species soon move in, and while the prawns have high-tech weapons and other gear to sell, no human being can use them properly.
The scenario unfolds as a mock-documentary, following the efforts of a well-meaning but hopelessly prejudiced bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) to relocate the entire District into a brand new slum just down the road. His bosses--a private security firm which oversees the aliens and has their eye on those shiny ray guns--view him as little more than a well-connected buffoon, but he doesn't mind and truly seems to believe he's doing the right thing. Once the relocation begins, however, he stumbles down a horrifying rabbit hole, fueled by his employers' hidden agenda and by a conspiracy within the ranks of the prawns which may have devastating repercussions for human and alien alike.
The film soars largely because Blomkamp has put a great deal of thought into his vision. He knows exactly how humanity would react to such developments and the ways in which politics, bigotry and the horrible detritus of "it seemed like a good idea at the time" can bedevil an initially simple situation. Earthlings appear quite monstrous in his eyes--certainly worse than the aliens we mistreat--and yet District 9 holds out hope for something better. At its core, it tells us we can improve… no matter how tragic and difficult that path may be.
Beyond that, it's just a colossal hoot. Shades of Jackson's early splatter films appear in the various set pieces, tinged with more sophisticated cynicism to create absurd (and absurdly violent) clashes amid the slums. WETA provides decent effects made all the more convincing for the unique imagery they invoke. Shots of prawns hunting through garbage cans and squabbling over cans of cat food attain a visceral plausibility which elevate the obvious CGI content far beyond that of similar efforts. By the time all hell breaks loose at the end, we think we've seen everything it has to show us… and yet even then, District 9 finds a way to turn expectations on their ears. The finale ranks among the best pieces of cinematic mayhem all year, bolstered by a quiet coda which may leave mist in the eyes of more than a few hardened fanboys.
And with a summer so dreadful as this one, its presence at the curtain call becomes all the more welcome. We slog through the noisy blockbusters, the empty product tie-ins and the shameless media onslaughts in hopes that one of them may prove up to the hype. So many let us down and so many more depend on a great deal of forgiveness to enjoy what meager pleasures they hold. So when something as unexpectedly marvelous as District 9 comes along, we may not be sure how to react. Can mainstream Hollywood ever produce something this fresh? Is it even possible? Whether or not the scions of Tinseltown can truly duplicate Blomkamp's feat is irrelevant. He's set a new gold standard for genre filmmaking, and reminded us that even the humblest science fiction film can rise to heights that put the Michael Bays and Stephen Sommers of the world to shame.
Mania Grade: A
Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Written by:: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka, Vanessa Haywood and Marian Hooman.
Running Time: 1 hrs. 53 min.
Series: District 9