Monday, May 24, 2010

District 9 Review

As I drove in to work today, I took a surface street detour to avoid some traffic (yes, I'm in L.A.), and passed a utilities building that prominently displayed "CWA District 9". I chuckled as I recalled the recent film and then thought, you know, that was good enough to warrant a blog review. So here are my thoughts on District 9.

I always find the most memorable sci-fi films and stories are ones that present unique ideas and situations. This movie really turned the whole alien invasion motif on its head by creating a society of aliens that get stranded on earth and are just trying to get home. Although they possess advanced technology and weaponry, they are not agressive. In fact, they are quite timid. The real problem for the humans is not defending the planet but just getting them to leave.

This was a unique way to showcase the common human issue of discrimination. The setting is South Africa and the shanty town in which the refugee aliens live looks just like something out of Soweto. Well, I just discovered that it was an actual shanty town and that the director, Neill Blomkamp, grew up in South Africa during apartheid. It was his childhood that inspired the film. Although it was a little preachy, it was still very effective.

A lot was done to create a sense of realism. First, the story begins after the aliens have been hanging around in the camp for many years, so the novelty of their arrival has worn off, including the gigantic inoperative space ship that looms over the camp in mid air (a great visual). They are now considered a nuisance as they simply consume resources without contributing anything. The aliens are made to look kind of like bugs. The shocking thing here is, notwithstanding the reality of the aliens themselves, how believable this reaction by the people really is. In addition to that, the government has been trying to figure out how to utilize their weapons technology, which seems linked to their alien biology for operation. That's kind of what you'd expect too.

So continuing with the realism theme, the director used a mock documentary style and most of the footage pretends to be taken from TV inteviews, security cameras, government footage, etc. The camera moves around a lot of course to look like spontaneous filming. Although this technique is past its prime, I think it worked very well here. The protagonist is just a regular guy, actually a bit of a bufoon, which lends a comedic element to the film without overdoing it. In fact, it seems the whole film is rather tongue in cheek but in a serious sort of way. He starts as a government official who gets stuck with the task of evicting the aliens and ends up getting himself into a big mess and betrayed by his government. You'd almost feel sorry for him if the events weren't so obviously satirical. Finally, the motion capture effects on the aliens is quite amazing. I think the motion capture magic in Avatar that came right after this film stole some of the credit away. But unlike Avatar, which was an all digital environment, District 9 digitizes the motion captured actors on top of real footage, giving it a much more authentic feel.

So I think this film was a noteworthy, if odd, addition to the sci-fi world. It intoduces a novel premise with a satirical twist, great special effects aimed at creating a documentary feel, and a fun adventure story that also has a conscience.

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