Friday, August 27, 2010

District 9

Science fiction is often used to give a little distance between the viewer and a hot button topic. Sometimes it doesn't work, such as in Star Trek VI, which was such a heavy handed allegory about the collapse of the USSR it rang false throughout. Sometimes it does, such as the best film about immigration and racism I've seen all year,">District 9.

So, here we're in South Africa, where a big alien ship has stalled, and the passengers have been moved to a slum called District 9. They're treated poorly, and then people complain that they commit crimes and are unruly, not realizing that having them in a slum situation likely doesn't help matters. Since they are planned to be relocated to a new district, clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely, in a star making turn) is charged with serving eviction notices and generally getting them to cooperate. It goes quite badly, and leads him to become more like them than he anticipated.

So the entire thing has a bit of an obvious allegory going on, and that's pretty unavoidable given the content. It doesn't help itself by making a lot of the human characters obviously evil, which is usually a death knell for subtlety. The late film hero moments can feel kind of awkward for this reason, as Wikus does sort of kill lots of people.

So why does it work? Well, Copely sells the weedy bureaucrat who is forced to go against what he used to just accept. He's never a perfect character - even late film he does some extremely cowardly and dick-ish things, rare for a hero - but he's strangely likable, even when he's right there with the evil company doing bad things. He's a nice guy, the kind of guy you probably wouldn't want for a boss but who you'd go for coffee with and buy a couch from. He's a recognizable happy center.

It also works because it's such a good action movie that it doesn't give you time to recognize how simple it is being drawn. The themes are obvious, and ever present, but nobody ever dwells upon them. It is a big, impressive action spectacle that relies on the themes to give a purpose for the action.

Still, being a big action movie leads to the people killed, and one wonders if they couldn't learn, like Wikus before them, that the aliens are actually nice guys. If we learn more about people - or space people - by hanging out with them, I wonder if some of the cannon fodder could have gotten along with the aliens if given the chance. I can understand some characters being just completely bad, but most of the soldiers are just soldiers, it feels somewhat uncomfortable just blowing them up.

Sometimes it can be too clever. Flipping between documentary style and more typical film making is an interesting choice - and the documentary talking head interviews are a great way to do exposition without being really annoying about it - but it seems a bit indecisive, as though it doesn't know what it wants to be.

It's far from a perfect movie, and there are also some points where the script doesn't consider if a twist quite makes sense in context. Still, it's possible to be imperfect and still quite good, and as a statement of purpose, District 9 is evidence that director Neill Blomkamp is one to watch.

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