Neil Blomkamp and Peter Jackson deliver the best sci-fi experience of the summer.
August 18, 2009 – We’ve seen aliens. We’ve seen aliens coming to Earth. We’ve seen strange and amazing technologies. We’ve seen mecha. We’ve seen documentary style film-making. We’ve seen humans turning into something… else. And we’ve seen films about racism, species-ism, and ethnic conflict. But somehow, Neil Blomkamp takes all these familiar, sometimes overdone elements, and puts it together in a wholly new way.
The major strength of District 9 is simply this: it takes a familiarly human story and gives it a sci-fi twist. Many films will go too far in either direction, often as not becoming so tech and effects heavy that the audience doesn’t make any emotional connection with the characters at all (see: Transformers.) Based on Apartheid, the policy of racial discrimination that stood for so long in Africa, and still does in many ways, the story is grounded in a directly historical parallel, which gives its meaning a distinctive intellectual weight that many other summer blockbusters lack. Some may say that the movie pushes its parallel with Apartheid too far; I think Blomkamp hit the sweet spot.
District 9 focuses on the plight of its characters first, primarily Wikus, a basic cubicle-inhabiting nametag with a number at MNU, Christopher, one of the “Prawns” (the derogatory name for the refugee aliens) and his little son. Wikus shows how distant, careless, cold and inhumane people can be toward “lower classes,” but he is also a terrific example of how being thrust, quite literally, into the shoes of those people can change a man for the better. Christopher is a fairly noble individual, who is displayed in a very positive light, though he obviously has goals that take precedent over other concerns, such as Wikus’, and rightly so. The audience doesn’t form the connection with him out of his noble goals, but rather out of his very emotional and believable relationship with his son, and even eventually Wikus (but mostly his son). The kid is very believably a kid. He isn’t the child from hell, nor the little angle that most films stereotype children as. He is real.
Reality is what defines this movie’s style and it is much to the film’s credit. It is also at least partially responsible for its successful storytelling. The places visited feel real and lived in. Trash may be strewn all over District 9, but it is trash that feels shuffled through, picked over and used because it was all to be had. The aliens’ design has been done before, but not nearly this successfully. Parallels are sure to be drawn to Gollum, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but Jackson and Blomkamp truly have taken those techniques to a new level of believability. All of the alien tech feels used and real, even when the guns shoot lightning. Of course not all of the special effects are overt. A lot has to be said for the subtle use of some of the effects. The ever-present alien ship sitting in every open shot, blurred and indistinct in the documentary film lends authenticity to the event that the Cloverfield style filmmaking couldn’t have done without. Grungy, Lived-in and used are all terms that rightly apply to the settings, which was a strength of the original Star Wars trilogy. It probably helped that the film had such a small budget at around 30 million dollars. Too much money would probably have ruined it.
Of course a brisk run-time helps too.
Sharlto Copley, a first-time actor, does a fantastic job of portraying Wikus’ evolving character. Extra money may have ruined the film, but so would Brad Pitt, or any other big-name actor. The side actors might have needed a little more work, but they were so peripheral that, for the most part, the skill of their actors wasn’t an issue. Neil Blomkamp has shown his mettle as a feature filmmaker, stepping up from his small-film roots to more than conquer the summer silver screen. Jackson, meanwhile has shown himself to be every bit the real deal that the Lord of the Rings promised him to be.
Not only the best sci-fi film this summer, it may be the best sci-fi blockbuster flick in years, even counting the great examples of Star Trek and Iron Man. The action-heads out there will get the explosions they crave, but for those who want meaning, emotion and thought to go with their mechs, fireballs and machineguns, this film is a real treat. Make sure you go see this film, the freshest wind in the sails of the sci-fi genre in a long time.
Rating out of 10 – Description
9/10 – Story: Taking cues from Apartheid, this film weaves a striking tale with perfect plot pacing.
9/10 – Character: Wikus has a believable and powerful story arc, and Christopher and his son are fantastically realized as well, noble while believable.
10/10 – Look: Simple, grimy and realistic, it is the perfect fit for the film, and the perfect way to engage an audience’s suspension of disbelief.
8.5/10 – Cinematography: Cloverfield may have done it first, but the documentary style shaky cam is done even better here, mostly because its not overdone, and the style switches over to regular film when it serves the narrative best.
8/10 – Audio: Fitting, if low quality, it makes sense in terms of the hand-camera style.
10/10 – The Spark: I knew I was watching a great film before the half-way mark, but at the last scene, when you see a familiar character as you’ve never seen him before, I knew I loved it.
OVERALL: 9.2/10 (Not an Average)