Friday, February 26, 2010

Films in Review: An Analysis of District 9 (2009)

Wowza. What to say about District 9...Firstly, the entire beginning sequence is likely one of the most clever and brilliant story telling devices I've seen in a long time. The film only begins to take on the traditional narrative form about 30 minutes in but the way in which the world of this film is initially introduced to the audience is through documentary style interviews and mock up news coverage of this "District 9" as if it were a real media piece occurring in the world today and for the last two decades. So many little details of how that introductory sequence was constructed are just perfectly true to the actual nuances of legitimate documentary filmmaking so it plays like unedited news coverage of behind the scenes footage in a real government military evacuation. They did so much to "create a world" right down to the restricted area posters that read "For Humans Only" built into an intricate set design...Just brilliant! There was however an odd almost comical tone that was struck which threw me out of that masterfully constructed illusion. The character of Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the man appointed head of this MNU Evacuation operation, presents himself as so over the top and absurd in the smiling friendly naive manner in which he goes about leading the mission (think Steve Carell as Michael from The Office) to a point where it looses that sense of seriousness which the previous "media coverage" and interviews so strongly established.

Once the film takes off as a traditional narrative, there are still elements of that "news coverage" that come in and out, helping to strengthen the sense of credibility and believability that this "Alien District" is a real live happening. There was a broad exploration of what would actually happen in real life if an alien mother ship landed in Johannesburg, inspired most obviously from humanity's past indiscretions and historical conflicts; featuring such humanitarian issues such as racial discrimination, civil rights activity, government lust for advanced weapons technology and forced evacuation of "outsiders" to concentration camps. Every angle of the worst of mankind's human reactionary nature were presented: Nigerian weapons dealers, slum violence between locals and the alien "outsiders", angry civil rights protests of alien relocation, prejudice derogatory name-calling of the aliens "Prawns" and even bi-racial connotative themes were presented through alien-human prostitution rings. All of which seemed realistic and worked for me to establish and set "the scene" all be it bleak. However certain elements just don't seem to "play" alongside such heavy material, like the oddity of the abnormal obsessive affinity that these aliens had for cat food? Again such elements hold no real baring on the story and just seem to distract from the otherwise credible seriousness of the situation trying to be established.

Besides the remarkable cleverness of the documentary style opening, another stand-out feature of this film was really the visual effects. Through a combination of special effects makeup, prosthetics and digital CGI, the visual component became surprisingly life-like. Seven foot alien cockroaches with long lobster like claws could easily look absurdly fake but there was a realistic and even emotional visceral quality that was maintained with these creatures. The main Prawn-alien, who Wikus calls Christopher had such an endearing quality that came through his expression, as did his little baby prawn son which made them quite loveable characters; a feat I find impressive considering how intimidatingly hideous their otherwise outwardly appearance. Perhaps most impressive though was the transformation of Wikus himself where one of his eyes mutated into creature form but the other remained human. I was reminded of earlier disappointments that I had with the choice of visual style for the character of Harvey Two-Face in Dark Knight where it really became so over the top fake and CG looking that it almost couldn't be taken seriously. But here with Wikus, I really couldn't believe my own eyes in seeing how realistic these visual designers managed to create his half faced transformation. Believable to behold, it was truly an amazing visual feat.

The resolution of this film left much to be desired especially since the protagonist Wikus was such a prat to begin with and only seemed to manage minor growth as a character. What I will say though, is that for such an unlikeable character that Wikus was established to be, we certainly find ourselves feeling desperately sorry for him in his awful predicament, even rooting for him to get "fixed" by the end. The end action sequence features Wikus strapped into a giant robotic alien weapon-bot, very reminiscent of Transformers. But the spectacle here, unlike other empty Hollywood blockbuster action, really feels purposeful with much at stake for the fate of the characters. It also presents opportunity for our protagonist Wikus to perform probably the only valiant non self-serving act for his character in the entire film. Personally I prefer to align myself with characters motivated by valor that I can really get behind, though I appreciate that such a little weasel as Wikus, through an intense journey of extreme circumstances, could finally come to terms with his own personal integrity. In that way, I feel that director Neill Blomkamp has created a very unusual and unorthodox piece of cinema here, with a variety of nuanced themes, that can certainly be appreciated on many levels.

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