In the world of District 9, space aliens have somehow accidentally created first contact. They managed to crash-land a colossal ship by floating it for a period of 28 years over Johannesburg. They have advanced weaponry. They know English without being able to speak it (like my dog). Unlike my dog, they love cat food. If you heard buzz about this being a game-changer, hopefully this paragraph has brought you back to Earth.
Rookie director Neil Blomkamp (under the tutelage of Peter Jackson) presents us the story of the struggling Prawn. Prawn is a derogatory term South Africans call the aliens who the government has shacked up just outside the city. The Prawn do need some blaming as their culture didn’t teach them right from wrong, and they like causing train wrecks. A documentary-esque approach is taken as we hear from the loved one’s of one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). This, as we quickly hear, was the man assigned to oversee a large-scale effort to move the Prawn into larger grounds. After an accident, our Borat of South Africa transforms into a hybrid of the species; placing Wikus into the shoes of the outsiders.
The visual effects are some of the best this year has to offer. CGI work is nearly seamless, with few exceptions. Some of this credit can go to the editor, but more on that later. The action scenes are entertaining and the pacing is brisk. Acting, when it’s called on, is convincing. Copley really is the only talent of significance and I doubt any other name could truly be attributed as a co-star. His metamorphosis is brutal, sympathetic, and convincing. It’s fresh and easy to like, but has so many imperfections.
I would have preferred a better examination between the good of man and some light shed on the role-reversal turn. What ends up happening is fast pace action. The set-up is there for something big, but the way things just settle isn’t so satisfying. The devolution into an action flick is clear evidence that this was originally intended to be based on the Halo video game franchise. This crew was conceptually working on the project, but when Microsoft backed out, they obviously retained some designs and intentions.
There is a significant language barrier issue, that is never commented on. This is most perplexing when the first 20 minutes blatantly states everything we’ve learned about them, except one of the most important aspects of a culture. We see humans talk to them in English. We see Prawn talk back in… Prawnish. Somehow we understand each other. I personally saw no evidence to suggest that either side has the capability to exchange dialogue, but that’s just me.
If you expect me to shower the cinematography with praise, then you are mistaken. Having the camera placed in any number of unusual position and cranking up the zoom, does liven up the movie. I’ll give it that. It’s also shaking violently more often than not. It straddles the line between amateur and Oscar, and too many people are going to think of it as high art. I occasionally want to have time to look at a scene and see what develops. I want to know the geography and pick-up on the art design. In District 9, you have only a second to look at any given shot; hardly enough time to draw admiration. Furthermore the cuts are as violent as the carnage. Seems that every time a cut occurs, an undisclosed amount of time has passed. Again, high art or cheap method to side-step continuity. So much of this can be attributed to trying to create a documentary feel for the early part of the film. There are interviews, archival footage from news cameras, etc. That worked well for me, as it was clear everyone was addressing the camera. When the movie starts to take-up the conventional fourth wall approach, that style sticks with it. This is interesting since we know a human camera guy wouldn’t be permitted into some of these situations, like the inside of a Prawn hut, or a warlord’s meeting. So what you end up with is a sloppy looking “movie” where even the camera is occasionally sprayed with blood. I like to call this the “impossible cameraman” since we are made aware of his presence early on and somehow he’s done a diligent job of sticking around and flirting with the fourth wall. At least Cloverfield rode out on the horse it came in with.
I can’t believe the circumstances of the film, but I don’t want to linger on it. The major powers of our world would have had more of a role, as they would understand the possible ramifications of mistreating these visitors. The UN would likely have kept them aboard their ship. If you want to hit the cerebral off switch, what’s drawn up is possible. The tale of District 9 is highly entertaining, but not as thought provoking as the intro lends it to be. So I find myself disappointed since I was expecting something grander, something that would comment on our existence, an analogy to a real world situation, or anything beyond the ton of blood loaded with clichés. Still, you have to give credit where it’s due and the good outweighs the bad by a few quarts. **½