Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Throwing Myself In Front Of The DISTRICT 9 Band Wagon

I write a lot about how big a role nostalgia plays in forming my tastes and interests. Nostalgia is what helped me get past the brain dead toy commercial plotting of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to enjoy the movie for the big, noisy spectacle that it is. Nostalgia is the shield that keeps me from picking apart plot holes and other assorted weaknesses inherent in most of the pop culture and geek entertainment I prefer. And it's the lack of any nostalgic connection that has me feeling flat toward everybody's new favorite movie, District 9.

Yep, I'm about to pick apart a movie because it is too fresh and too inventive.

I already feel like a jerk for it, but the closest thing to nostalgia I have for the story of aliens forced to live among us is that I remember liking Alien Nation better.

I'm not about to pan this movie by any means. I agree with the reviews and opinions I've seen from friends and critics and critical friends, all saying this movie will go down as an instant sci-fi classic. It does what other classics--Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Matrix--did in raising bars and setting precedents for what science fiction can and should look like on film. District 9 doesn't feel like other alien-invasion movies, and the lack of any cliched hero or cookie-cutter storyline helps immerse the viewer into the District 9 world, rather than take us on a predictable popcorn escape. It's all very organic and interesting, and even elevates the fake documentary/shaky-cam style that Hollywood has been trying to perfect since the Blair Witch. So, stylistically, it's a big win.

Director Neil Blomkamp has been refining this particular type of grainy, kinetic, tech-heavy CGI action for a short while now, and he has clearly mastered it. The special effects in District 9 are especially amazing when it comes to technology--the giant alien mothership hovering in the haze over Johannesburg, the powerful alien weaponry, even the way those weapons interact with their targets--turning inorganic material into dust and popping humans like blood-filled balloons.

As for the aliens--the prawns--interacting with the human actors and environments, it was all convincing enough, but the prawns themselves still looked very much like CGI cartoons. Like the monkeys in Jumanji, the bugs in Starship Troopers, and the army of Agent Smiths in The Matrix 2, the prawns never looked quite real enough for me to be believe. I was never pulled out of the movie by these CGI visitors, but I was never sold on them being real, either. Some shots in particular, like the close-ups of "Christopher's" young child playing in front of their shack or hiding in the shadows, looked superimposed onto a real-world backdrop. So even though the film is inventively stylish and clever with the effects, it is hardly visual perfection.

Moving on to characters, we get the greedy businessman villain, the brutish soldier villain, and the sobbing wife at home...but we spend so little time with the supporting cast that you can almost forget how generic they are. As for the one character we do spend time with--I loved how the movie's protagonist Wilkus (played by Sharlto Copley) was no Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis action hero, but more like Steven Carell in The Office--all sweaty, nervous, twitchy energy. He was charmingly inept at the start of the film, which helped even more than the visuals to dissuade any preconceptions that this film would be business-as-usual sci-fi. And he did some truly disreputable things early in the story that surprised me. How could such a buffoon also be a sadistic speciesist jerk? And, more importantly, could I get behind this guy as the "hero" of the piece?

I liked having to answer these questions for myself as a viewer, though I'm not sure my answers were in the movie's favor. Wilkus' characterization was certainly a positive toward throwing out expectations, but I found myself wishing for a more relatable (or even likable) protagonist as the plot unfolded. Wilkus does change for the better over the course of the story...sort of. Mostly, those changes are physical (that was a spoiler, by the way). But when his views change--philosophically and politically--those changes are clearly forced by necessity--what else is the poor schmuck going to do? His one resoundingly heroic act, which I won't spoil, comes only minutes after he reminds us that he is still pretty much a selfish, prawn-prejudiced tool. It's only when his ass is back on the line and his alternative is to lay down and die, that he acts selflessly. Still sweaty and twitchy, but selfless, nonetheless.

My final nit to pick is the overall premise of the film--the prawns arrived on our planet in a seemingly broken down mothership and have been forced into a South African slum, where they've been for 20 years. They arrived with a stockpile of weapons and no explanation as to how or why they came to Earth--even after decades and enough communication that humans and prawns can speak to one another in their respective languages. It's a neat idea if you dismiss the violent and untrusting nature of humans toward humans--let alone how we might act toward another species altogether. The fact that the aliens arrived fully armed would be enough justification for the governments of the world to agree to, at the very least, shoot down the giant mothership at some point in those 20 years. And the bit involving Wilkus, the crazy effects of human exposure to alien fuel (the driving plot point), is the kind of thing that only makes sense for the purposes of making a movie. I can't figure out any reason why the aliens would have a substance that has the kind of effect that this stuff does on Wilkus. So, while the movie looks cool and is brimming with originality, the premise and the plot ring false to me. It's hard for me to get too excited by a movie when those are the problem areas.

So, I liked District 9. I didn't like it nearly as much as most people seem to have, but I appreciate that it is going to elevate sci-fi for the non-geek crowds and it is going to help elevate the quality of the sci-fi action movies that follow. Still, I doubt I would watch a TV series based on it, like I did for Alien Nation.

I loved that show.


Jeremy said...

you should write a review of "They Live."

Matt Bergin said...

Now THAT is a great movie!

Jayf said...

I was a fan of Alien Nation too. I'll have to check out D9 before I can comment further.

Mike said...

I loved D9. Sure, the film had problems but ultimately, it was awesome in the ways that matter.

The movie did make me think a bit about Marvel Ruins where the Kree were locked up in internment camp dying of radiation from the nuclear bombs Earth tossed at their armada.