Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: District 9

Every once in a while, a movie comes out with a lot of buzz around it and yet not all that much "hype" (in the form of ubiquitous trailers and/or set reports that have given away every little detail about the plot already). When that happens, if the film's subject matter looks interesting to me, I like to see it on opening weekend before hearing too much about it online or through the grapevine. Such was the case with District 9, from producer Peter Jackson and director Neil Blomkamp. Thus I ventured out, on Opening Night, in search of what all the indistinct chatter was about.

Watching District 9 was an experience unlike any other, for at least one reason: it manages to combine many of the attributes usually associated with an independent film - unknown actors, unconventional style, absence of a comfortable and obvious through-story that assures you that you know exactly where things are headed, and heavy doses of quirkiness - with some top not-notch CGI work that you'd expect from a $100+-million dollar release (District 9 apparently cost $30 M). And even beyond the special effects, all of the acting is rock solid, if not spectacular, and with not a single wink to the camera regarding the offbeat storyline.

And for those who don't know, what District 9 is ostensibly "about" is the continuing fallout from an arrival nearly 30 years earlier that just sort of... happened. A large alien ship appeared over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa 28 years before the film begins, we're told in flashback-documentary fashion, and when we humans got tired of waiting for the visitors to show themselves, we cut our way in and found a million or so intelligent, man-sized "Prawns" making like your typical huddled masses inside: dirty, tired and hungry. They were then brought down to the planet and set up in a makeshift ghetto directly below their seemingly-useless vehicle. Now, after years of them causing problems large and small in their interactions with the residents of Johannesburg, they're about to be relocated several hundred miles away. That's where District 9 moves from documentary style to more of a ground-level, sometimes shaky-cam action flick, though at that it's far from conventional in its approach.

There are a handful of characters who take centre-stage by the time we're halfway through the proceedings, and I was amazed at the film-makers' ability to manipulate our emotions toward several of them. I was reminded of The Lives of Others - a very different indie sort of offering - and the way I was constantly forced to re-evaluate my take on its main figures as it went along. We're so used to cardboard cutouts for movie heroes and villains, I guess, that it's still refreshing to meet up with something different now and again.

I liked just about everything about District 9, including the fact that it provides more questions than answers. I wanted to know a lot more about the fascinating backstory - Why did the aliens come to Earth? Why did their ship malfunction immediately upon arriving, or was it actually doing exactly what it was supposed to (and if so, what was that)? Why did the mysterious fuel have the effect that it did on a human? And why didn't the Prawn do more about their plight over those 28 years, given the weaponry they brought with them? - and yet I still left the theatre highly satisfied with what I'd been given over the two hours. (The movie certainly left itself open for an intriguing sequel, should it prove to be a blockbuster in terms of ticket and/or DVD sales.) Perhaps most importantly, it raised the uncomfortable question of, Would we really treat a second intelligent species as badly as we did in District 9? I suspect the answer to that one isn't as sunny as some of us would like to believe.

Rating: *** 1/2

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