Friday, August 21, 2009

District 9

"Dances With Prawns"

Ridley Scott recently said in an interview, "Science Fiction in movies is dead," proving once again that as a visionary, Ridley Scott is a superb art director.*

But, like Westerns, they can continue to cast a reflection on our life and times, just as surely as the Sun sets in the West—on Earth or Mars—wherever there are flawed humans who'll make the same mistakes in the future as they did in the past.

Take the new film by South African film-maker
Neill Blomkamp—"District 9"—a re-telling of the issues of apartheid both in macro- and micro-cosm. It won't score many points for originality, but as a potent rejuvenation of how sci-fi can focus attention on an issue, it may be the best film of its type since "The Road Warrior."

Twenty years ago, a large spaceship is left, stranded, hovering over Johannesburg. When official go to take a look, they find a race of aliens— emaciated, starving—and they begin transporting the survivors off the ship and into makeshift refugee camp, dubbed "District 9." And in a repeat of history, the camps "became fenced, then militarized, and then it became a slum." The Joburg citizens of all races are barely tolerant of "the prawns," as they are called, as long as they stay on their side of the fence. They become scavengers, demoralized, living on garbage taken advantage of by human predators. They're also extremely well-armed (with weapons that only respond to their DNA, so humans can't use them), and attempting to create the fuel they'll need to get back home.

This back-story is told from rough-edited documentary footage outlining "the situation." As the human/prawn tensions become high, the M.N.U. (
Multi-National United) is recruited to move the million prawns to a new relocation camp far from Johannesburg. In charge of the operation is the son-in-law of an MNU muckety-muck, Wikus van der Merwe** (Sharlto Copley) and you just know from the documentary footage of him that 1) he's an idiot, senseless and blithely ignorant and 2) "something" happened to him, as he's always mentioned in the past tense.

What's happened is that van der Merwe's evacuation plan,
a disorganized xenophobic spree, has uncovered weapons cache's, nurseries (which are put to the torch—"Listen to them pop!" exults van der Merwe to the camera), and due to his pig-ignorance, he's exposed to an agent that begins to change him into one of the insectoid aliens, giving him a look at their world, walking a mile in their claws, as it were...and, oh, by the way, he can start using their weapons now.

Now, lest anyone get the impression this is a life-affirming lesson in just getting along, be advised that it's a parable soaked in blood and bile. It's one of the dankest, squishiest movies I've ever laid eyes on with much viscous vomiting, projectile blood-shed—the aliens' weapons are particularly nasty, exploding human bodies like blood-blisters with gout's of blood hitting the camera lens—and sequences of transformation somewhat akin to Cronenberg's "The Fly" (particularly when the hero tears out his fingernails). I saw more than enough folks who had to leave the theater when I saw it, so be warned (especially you parents being pressured to see
the "space-ship" movie).

It is also one of those surface-message movies that belies its point with its story presentation, the message being mixed in a left brain/right brain conflict. Xenophobia is certainly shown as wrong, but in as visceral a way possible, the only difference depending on what side of the electro-blaster-micro-waver you're on. And there isn't any direct retribution for actions taken—the film has a mindless video game feel to it, rather emptily getting the blood up, and providing no catharsis to diffuse it.***

However, there is a lot that makes "District-9" satisfying (if uncomfortable) from its performances, art direction, seamless motion capture effects, and design.

Oh. And in a final irony: Blomkamp's artist's representation in California is RSA...which is owned by Sir Ridley Scott.

"District 9" is a Matinee.

* One wonders why he would even say such a thing as his company, Scott Free Productions, produced the egregious (but ratings-busting) A&E regurgitation of "The Andromeda Strain." One might agree if he was talking about the line of toy-ad's masquerading as entertainment (Can't wait for "Lincoln Logs: The Movie!"), but those can hardly be counted as "science fiction."

** Here's another layer to "District-9"—it's a cultural joke. In South Africa, there is a sub-species of joke called the "van der Merwe joke," like "blond" jokes in the U.S., or "Sven and Ole" jokes in Scandinavian communities, they're self-deprecating humor about just how dumb someone could possibly be. That "D-9" starts as a van der Merwe joke and turns into a story of redemption is just one of the insidious joys of "District-9."

*** "District 9" came about as a substitute project for director Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson after their planned collaboration of the film version of the popular "Halo" video game came to naught.

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