Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Dis District 9!

District 9 exceeded expectations both in the box office and in my imagination this weekend, and as I've browsed the Internet for more information about the movie's development, I'm surprised to discover critics and sci-fi fans alike as divided about it as the aliens were from the humans in this film. Permit me the chance to contribute to the conversation with this succinct list of the top nine things I liked about District 9, in least-to-greatest order of importance, to boot! Spoiler alert! Don't proceed unless you've already seen the movie or don't care about having some of the plot spoiled!

Marketing. Based exclusively on its marketing, District 9 could've easily been mistaken as another alien invasion flick. Prior to the film's release, what did anyone know of the story other than the divisive human versus alien theme? I mean, how often do humans have the upper hand in movies like this?

Setting. Just as commentators explain at the beginning of the film, that these aliens don't descend upon world capitals like Washington D.C., or London, or Hong Kong is truly the most peculiar context of this film's story. In many ways, the director's native Johannesburg, South Africa is as purely human to a mainstream cinematic audience as it is alien, making it the perfect arid setting for this film about being both.

Budget. At $30 million, this film was totally produced at the cost most singular American actors like Brad Pitt or Jim Carrey are paid just to star. At $30 million, this film's crew made a stranded spaceship look as natural as any cloud on the horizon, made an entire extraterrestrial race come desperately alive, made a cache of alien weapons look as realistic and dangerous as any brandished in another more established franchise.

Original Screenplay. At a time when science fiction movies are inspired by comic books or a series of young adult novels, I'm grateful that District 9 is the brainchild of a writer/director willing and able to utilize cinema as an original means of telling a multi-dimensional story. Neill Blomkamp's short film pilot for the concept, Alive in Joberg, is a little sloppy and amateurish in comparison, but his dedication and development for the project is admirable in today's industry of fleeting sensations.

Variety of Perspective. I've already read critics' on-line comparisons of District 9 to Cloverfield, and while this flick certainly exploits the intimacy of the handheld camera perspective, its incorporation of documentary-style expert interviews, helicopter news footage, and traditional character-oriented perspective creates a rich tapestry through which to understand this story's impact on its world at large. For instance, some twenty years along, would an extraterrestrial refugee camp in South Africa really affect the average American's life -- any more so than the similar global crises that affect our society in real life? Only through the media's relentless analysis of such a phenomenon would a hovering spaceship in Johannesburg not become just some fantastic but accepted eighth wonder of the world.

Respect for the Audience. Thankfully, Blomkamp's vision weaves District 9 together; rather than introduce the MNU footage in the beginning as a teaser or visual attention-getter, he uses it as legitimate vehicle for storytelling and assumes that the audience can keep up. Also, one of my favorite aspects of the film was the way humans and aliens could vaguely understand each other, asserting that two decades in each others' company established a familiarity with their respective languages, just as we humans experience enculturalization in reality. The characters didn't break the fourth wall to explain this to the viewer but simply relied on the audience's similar experiences, sans otherworldly aliens, of course.

Allegory. Until the story exploits the more fantastic science fiction aspects of the aliens' culture and technology, its tale of a rounded-up, persecuted race is practically historical. The "prawns" could've just as easily been Jews in 1940s Germany, blacks in 1840s America, the Irish, the Portuguese . . . Interestingly, the arrival of a helpless alien race seems to bind the globe via a peace-keeping Multi-National United effort. As an American viewer, when South Africans were interviewed man-on-the-street style, I hardly noticed his or her thick accent in comparison to the all-too-human feelings of fear and frustration at the aliens' supposed imposition, proving that we earthlings really aren't all that different from each other. In fact, the lead character's horrid metamorphosis, and his relative ease at becoming a sympathizer and revolutionary for the other side, depicts just how similar all us cosmic creatures might be from the inside out -- which was, I imagine, the point.

Cast. Having a cast of first-timers and virtual unknowns is as much a gamble as it is a strength. When I told my mom how great this movie was, her first question was, "Who's in it?" With no mainstream names to tout, her interest in it waned. At the same time, sci-fi fans that take the risk are instantly sucked into this parallel world, sans preconceptions from any of the actors' previous roles or potentially highly publicized private lives. Actor Sharlto Copley's Wikus van de Merwe is a South African Lieutenant Dangle from Reno 911, complete with the false bravado that comes from the pseudo-celebrity of a documentary film camera, yet his Kafka-esque plight ironically dubs him the everyman -- something a Brad Pitt or Will Smith couldn't have accomplished. This cast effectively fenced us into Blomkamp's vision, like a little District 9 in itself.

Lightning Gun. It blew people to bits. That's cool.


johnny_justice said...

Hello...Where is the Spoiler Alert notice at the beginning of this?

KaraokeFanboy said...

Whoa, you're right! I'm adding it right now!