Saturday, October 1, 2011

District 9 Review

District 9 (2009)

There haven't been many sci-fi classics in the last little while, but that chain was broken in 2009, which was a fine year for sci-fi. We had Avatar (which I still haven't seen), JJ Abrams' Star Trek, and we had District 9, whic is one of the best films of that year and one of the greatest sci-fi films of all tiime. It has an intelligent allegorical story, it has some good performances from both the human and alien characters, it has extraordinary special effects and makeup effects (which I don't really talk about that often in reviews), and it has emotional resonance. It almost feels like a news feature on the aliens, especially in the beginning, which is shot in the "mockumentary" style. Even though that style of filmmaking has been done before (like in Christopher Guest's movies and even some TV shows like Modern Family and The Office), it is given a new twist in this movie.


District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, where out of nowhere, an alien ship arrives. It shows no signs of movement, so the military cut their way in and discovered alien life. Over the course of twenty years, the aliens lived segregated from humans in the titular District 9. They live in squalor and filth, and are under persecution from the humans living in Johannesburg, who cruelly nicknamed them "prawns". They are especially persecuted by the MNU, which has a mission to serve the aliens with eviction notices to relocate them away from the humans. The evictions naturally don't go well, and there are many alien casualties.

The leader of this mission is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) an MNU employee who is sprayed by a mysterious fluid while searching the shack of one of the aliens. He immediately dismisses this as nothing and continues on with his job, confiscating the tube which the liquid was in. Later on, he starts getting sick, and it is revealed that the thing under his arm sling (he wounded his arm in a fight between the aliens) is no longer a human hand, but a giant alien claw, not unlike the "prawns". It turns out Wikus was infected with alien DNA and he is slowly becoming one of them. Because of this, he is brought to a medical experimentation facility. They test his ability to fire the alien weapons (which can only be used by the aliens because of biological engineering) and he narrowly escapes being vivisected.

After these events, Wikus becomes a fugitive from the MNU and the entirety of Johannesburg, and he hides out in the only place nobody would dare look for him. He hides out in District 9, where he meets the alien that developed the fluid, an alien named Christopher and his son. Christopher says he can help Wikus if they can get the fluid back from the MNU. The entire climax of the movie is focused on fighting the military that was infiltrating District 9 to get Wikus for busting into MNU. The climax is exciting and thrilling, and this is one of the rare movies (like Inception the year after) that is thrilling as well as being intellectually and emotionally satisfying as well. That is everything that goes into a sci-fi classic in my eyes, and District 9 has it.

One of the best elements of the film and what makes it so good is the allegory. It is fairly obvious that this film substitutes racism for species-ism, and it does that extremely well. The humans are incredibly callous towards the aliens, cruelly nicknaming and even killing them for no apparent reason other than they fact that they are different. They keep the aliens in squalor and intend to move them to even more squalor (Wikus says it's like a concentration camp) just because the humans in Johannesburg don't like them being there (even though they are already extremely segregated). This treatment could be connected to the treatment of any number of races, but the segregation especially connects with the ghettoes and eventually, concentration camps in WWII. I know, I can find WWII allegories in nearly anything. It's kind of spooky. I guess when you have a vested interest in something, you can find semblances of it in things that appear to be unrelated.

District 9 has a lot of things going for it and one of those things, although lesser than some of the other elements of the movie, is its decent cast. There's only one actor of relative name in this movie, and even at the time he still wasn't that well known. The actor's name is Sharlto Copley, and he did a fantastic job as the main character, something he could have gotten an Oscar nomination for. The rest of the actors are not big-name ones, but they all do a decent enough job for the characters they are supposed to play. The alien that is most featured is named Christopher, and he could go down as one of the greatest CGI characters (and that is a great honour considering he is not played by Andy Serkis). For someone who doesn't speak any discernable language and for someone who can only be understood through subtitles, he gets across a lot emotionally.

The film is more talk-y than most recent films involving aliens, but that's not to say that the film is not a thrilling one. The second half of the film is very thrilling and the climax is extremely entertaining. The special effects were great but not overblown, not unlike JJ Abrams' Star Trek, and they were seamlessly integrated into the human world of the movie. The design of the aliens is some of my favourite alien design in any movie and the design of the hovering mothership (which the aliens are unable to get to) is splendid. The art direction is wonderful as well, especially the design of District 9 itself. I don't normally talk about makeup effects in my reviews, unless I feel that they are absolutely extraordinary and worth remarking on, and I feel that way for this movie, as the makeup effects showing Wikus' transformation are amazing.

The script was Oscar-nominated and rightfully so, because it is great. District 9 was nominated for a few other Oscars as well, like Visual Effects (which it lost to Avatar), Adapted Screenplay (which it lost to Precious), Editing (which it lost to The Hurt Locker) and Best Picture (also lost to The Hurt Locker). Admittedly I haven't seen a lot of the 2009 Best Picture nominees, but out of the live action ones, this one is my personal favourite. This is pretty much a perfect movie, and there is nothing wrong with it in my eyes. District 9 has the potential to become a new sci-fi classic and I hope it does because it is a truly great film. It has everything going for it. It has great performances, a heart-wrenching story, great special effects, a thrilling climax, and a great allegory. If you haven't seen this movie, then I would strongly encourage you to do so ASAP, as it has transcended into must-see territory, whether or not sci-fi is your thing. Because it's not just sci-fi, it's great drama as well. So see it, and you won't be disappointed.

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