Friday, August 21, 2009

'District 9' is a piece of great science fiction

“District 9” is about aliens. If you read that sentence and your knee-jerk response was to dismiss the film, please keep reading because “District 9” is so much more than your average action-packed creature feature.

Great science fiction is about an idea and can be used to make statements about the world we live in. That isn’t to say something like “Star Wars” isn’t great entertainment, but that is more of an adventure story in space dealing in a traditional story of good versus evil than true science fiction.

“District 9” is set in South Africa where a spaceship hovers over Johannesburg. The aliens inside mean no threat, their ship has simply broken down. They are found starving and in a humanitarian act are brought down to Earth and put in a refugee camp that keeps them separate from humanity. The camp quickly turns into a slum.

The plot is driven forward by a plan to relocate the aliens, who are given the derogatory nickname of prawns because of their appearance, to a supposedly new and safer location.

This move is facilitated by a bumbling bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) who got the job simply because he’s the son-in-law of the head of the organization in charge of the move. This organization could care less about the prawns and is far more interested in their weaponry, which only the prawns can operate.

That is all just the set up, and to say anymore would ruin the experience of watching how this story unfolds. This is a movie that is full of surprises and the advertising for the film has bucked the recent trend in movie trailers of revealing key plot twists. Unfortunately, a lot of critics have been loose in their plot descriptions and do reveal developments involving Copley’s character.

Copley, in his acting debut, gives a strong and layered performance. His character goes through a complete character arc. He is the film’s protagonist, but the film, co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, is willing to make him do loathsome things.

The material is taken seriously, and the way the film is set up is about as realistic as possible. If a scenario like this occurred, this is probably what would really happen.

The film adopts a faux documentary style that is mixed with a traditional narrative. Everything blends together seamlessly. The fake news footage feels genuine and gives an intense authenticity to the film.

Then there are the aliens, which if they looked phony or cheap could turn a serious film into something unintentionally hilarious. Blomkamp, who has done special effects for such TV shows as “Stargate SG1” and “Smallville,” has created unique looking CGI creatures that are completely believable.

So often films addressing the arrival of aliens have them making contact with Americans, so it is refreshing to have aliens arrive somewhere else. The fact that it is South Africa adds a whole other layer of subtext to the film.

The film becomes an allegory for the now defunct apartheid system in South Africa and deals with themes of racism. This is ultimately what the film is really about.

The final third of the film transitions into a more traditional action film. Viewers taken in by the more credible, thoughtful approach to the subject matter may be disappointed by the more Hollywood-style ending. On the other hand, filmgoers who were perhaps made antsy by what could be perceived as a slow opening should be thrilled by the bombastic ending.

On an action level, the conclusion does deliver the goods and does so in a way that is an extension of the story and furthers the development of the characters. The final shot of the film is surprisingly poignant.

Warning: There is some graphic violence and imagery that squeamish moviegoers should be prepared for.

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