Monday, August 24, 2009
Review: District 9
There are two types of science fiction. Soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi. Soft sci-fi is the kind of science fiction that's more about the action and spectacle of seeing things go boom, or take a sci-fi concept to tell an otherwise contemporary story. It may take place in a futuristic or science-fictional setting, but there's little real science in it. Think Transformers or The Time Traveler's Wife. By contrast, hard sci-fi deals more closely with scientific concepts in telling its story. Gattaca, Blade Runner, 2001, all of these would be considered hard sci-fi. Very rarely will you find a movie or book that can blend the hard and soft without diluting the whole thing. District 9 is the rare film that manages to do just that.
28 years ago, an alien spacecraft entered Earth's atmosphere and came to rest hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. Deciding to be the first ones to make contact, human military units cut their way into the ship and discovered a plethora of worker aliens on the brink of death. The aliens are removed from the ship and placed into temporary housing in a new district of Johannesburg. District 9. Present day, MNU (think United Way meets FEMA) employee Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked with evicting all the aliens and relocating them to new, supposedly more efficient housing (District 10).
Needless to say, things don't go smoothly for Wikus. Almost immediatly, he's infected with a mysterious alien fluid, and his body is confiscated by MNU for testing. What began as a sort of faux-documentary soon becomes something more streamlined, as we follow Wikus' struggle to escape MNU, survive as a fugitive, and unravel the secret of District 9. I'm only giving you the basics, and saying any more would ruin one of a hundred surprises that District 9 has up its sleeve.
District 9 had something of a checkered production. Early on, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were in the planning phases of a Halo movie. When the studios refused to give them the budget they wanted, Jackson gave Blomkamp considerably less money ($30 million) and carte blanche to make whatever he wanted. The result, District 9, is adapted from Blomkamp's original short film "Alive in Joburg". You can see the Halo influences in the film. A lot of the vehicles and weapons used in the film were clearly meant to be Spartan assault rifles and Warthogs. Not that that's important to enjoying the film, but it's something interesting to notice.
Now, earlier I said that District 9 blends the hard sci-fi and the soft sci-fi remarkably well. Yes, there are high-minded concepts like bioengineering, apartheid, war crimes, weapon smuggling, etc. There are some really tough issues to deal with in District 9, but they're not overbearing. If you don't feel like contemplating alien apartheid, there are plenty of well-executed action sequences to keep you occupied. And not only are they well-executed, but the effects work is remarkably convincing for such a small budget. The aliens (derisively referred to as 'prawns') occasionally look too plasticy, but they never stick out like sore, alien thumbs.
But perhaps the single greatest thing about District 9 is its central character, Wikus. Wikus' journey is not an easy one to watch, but Blomkamp knows exactly when to make us fear for him, when to cry for him and when to cheer for him. And trust me, you WILL be cheering for Wikus before the end. But perhaps even more surprising than the human story is the alien story. Wikus meets up with an alien engineer named Christopher Johnson. Christopher and his Earth-born son have a plan for getting the mothership back online, and they form a tentative partnership with Wikus. While Wikus' story is predictably grim, Christopher's story goes to some fairly dark places of its own.
Overall, District 9 is a complete tour-de-force of sci-fi storytelling. It's completely engaging, fascinating, terrifying, and even a little heartbreaking. I'm not even sure what I can compare this movie to, and I think that's going to be my ultimate praise. This is a wholly original work that any fan of science fiction owes it to themselves to see at least once.
5 ( ) stars out of five. Seriously.