Did you see ‘District 9’? Of course you did. You didn’t? WHAT?!? Time to rectify that, starting with a…well, not TOO late review of the summer’s second best* movie. Go, baby, go!
The first thing you need to know about District 9 is that it’s difficult to explain with any real clarity. The alien part isn’t complicated — seemingly stranded extraterrestrial lifeforms land in Johannesburg and, without anywhere to go, are shepherded into a slum that becomes the titular District 9. There’s alien decay and alien customs and alien lightning-shooting weapons. Awesome! But then there’s the documentary-style footage woven in with “is it real?” ease. The not-so-subtle social/political themes. Plus buddy comedy moments? And real drama? This movie is a functioning schizophrenic, deftly maneuvering between tones and tropes in a way even Kanye West would find sort of remarkable. It is a hybrid that never runs out of gas.
Where did it come from? A few years ago commercial director Neill Blomkamp put together a series of short films to coincide with the release of videogame Halo 3. Collectively known as Landfall (check it out), the trilogy caught the attention of hobbit-loving Peter Jackson, who then asked its director to helm a feature-length Halo adaptation. Big money; big pressure. Naturally, it fell through. But with aliens still on the brain and the blessing of a cinematic titan, Blomkamp was quickly able to channel that energy toward something much cooler and much smarter.
The best Simpsons episodes always worked on a number of levels — at once funny, poignant, and intelligent, they were able to attract wide audiences who could pick and choose just what they responded to. Like a buffet! District 9 strikes the same chord of entertainment synthesis, bringing together elements from sci-fi, drama, thriller, and documentary films in a way that never feels disjointed (-cough- Judd Apatow) or transparent in its execution. This was an ambitious film, no question, but Blomkamp really pulled it off.
If you live in a major American city, you definitely caught D9‘s advertising campaign. “No Aliens Allowed” signs over busy intersections; “For Humans Only” posters at bus stops. There’s no doubt a small percentage of you who, fearing invasion, took off for Canada, but everyone else enjoyed the first taste of what this movie does so well: roping you into its world and convincing you everything you see is real. The film opens with documentary-like footage of the last twenty years, starting with the mothership’s arrival in J’Burg and leading up to the riots and private security firm machinations that kick off the main story. It could have come off as too clever for its own good, but the sincerity and variety of sources — security cam, news footage, etc. — really serve to legitimize the D9 world. 15 minutes in, we no longer question anything we’re seeing.
Of course we’ve learned from perfectionist directors like George Lucas and James Cameron (at least so it seems) that CGI, however jaw-droppingly good, is only as effective as the actors it serves. D9‘s effects are definitely jaw-droppingly good (though I’m convinced that this movie’s $30 million price tag is a tidy piece of revisionist history, playing to its “little indie that could” myth-making…), but what makes it such an authentic-feeling film are the people bringing it to life.
Sharlto Copley, as alien-evicting desk jockey Wikus van der Merwe, is seriously fantastic. You believe him throughout the movie, too, as he transforms both physically and emotionally. It’s a chameleon-like performance on a par with Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters, and should net the South African actor a slew of job offers. Equally important is the work of Jason Cope, who plays the alien known as Christopher Johnson. So much of this movie’s emotional heft depends on the audience identifying with its polarizing aliens — understanding and empathizing with their plight — and he fully delivers.
“All this acting stuff and genre splicing and engaging political allegory is great, but what about the action? Does shit blow up, like you said in your powerful haiku?”
Shit blows up. D9 may be a movie with a lot on its mind, but never forgets that it is, first and foremost, a kick-ass action movie. For the men (or fun ladies) reading this who want a tidy summary, we’ve got:
– Cursing in both casual and non-casual contexts
– Implied prostitution
– Blood everywhere
– Exploding heads
– Exploding limbs
– Bodily explosions, generally
– And a hulking robot exoskeleton
You had me at robot exoskeleton. District 9 is that rare breed of summer action movie that pauses between moments of awesomeness to make you think…then keep thinking after you’ve left the theater, something we haven’t seen this fully developed since The Matrix ten years ago. That kind of achievement is worth celebrating.
Like, yesterday. GO SEE IT.