This summer has proven to be very difficult for me as a film admirer. On the one hand, this summer has managed to break the bank with the top five blockbusters raking in over 1.2 billion dollars in revenue. However, Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen, a lousy film, accounts for 33% of these earnings, which tells Hollywood one thing, “Keep producing the same expensive crap, for dumb audiences, because that is what audiences like, and that is what makes money, right!” It is hard to take risks and gamble when the economy is what it is these days. But, I have to say as a film geek, 2009 has been a lackluster year for film, especially when compared to the likes of 2008 which had a strong summer headlined by, The Dark Knight.
On the other hand, District 9, a completely original sci-fi roller-coaster thrill ride that pulls every stop in film noir before throwing on the breaks, was made for a sheer 30 million dollars, and it has no Brad Pitt or a Tom Hanks headlining the cast. No offense to those actors, whom I admire, but it takes real balls to make a movie these days that is not a sequel, or remake, or an expensive star studded affair. District 9 breaks those rules that Hollywood has impaled us with and refreshes the ideology that you do not have to make a movie for over 100 million dollars, have every special effect in the book, or every star to grace the screen to be creative, intriguing, successful, and God forbid artistic. Thank goodness for movies like these. This one in particular saves the abysmal summer that 2009 has seen.
District 9 is flat out the best science fiction movie to appear since, The Matrix opened in 1999. It is gritty, dirty, realistic something that I liked about last year’s The Dark Knight, which provided a dark look at society and its morality. This film presents some of the same ideas but never forgets to have fun in the spectacularly gross science fiction way. And when I say gross, lets just say the film definitely earned its “R” rating.
The film opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, a dusty grim looking city with a slum at every turn. At the center we see a rather large space craft that appeared in 1987 and has apparently been hovering there ever since, unable to leave. Upon entering the ship, human beings find a horde of alien beings negatively referred to as “Prawns,” as they really do look like shrimp-like creatures, starving to death and striving to survive. The government decides to move these creatures and segregate them in District 9, essentially a slum comprised of shacks made out of anything, sitting on a landfill. Sound familiar? Remember a little thing in history called apartheid, meaning separateness, which dominated South Africa for almost fifty years? That morality lesson and tale is transformed and interpreted in this film and provides a centering backdrop for the story that unfolds around humans and the aliens that have been separated from the rest of society.
At the center of it all is Wikus Van De Merwe, played brilliantly by new comer Sharlto Copely, who is assigned the tough task of removing the aliens from District 9 only to transport them to a District 10, essentially an enclosed concentration camp. He has all of the qualities of a two-faced pawn of the government, likable from his naive and happy approach to the job he has been assigned, yet slimy and appalling at the way he interacts with the creatures and handles his duty. And, unfortunately for him, his duty leads him to encounter a biological weapon of some sort, resulting in a terrifying transforming experience, which oddly enough gives him some insight to the treatment of the aliens he and others have discriminated against and abused. I won’t say much about the transformation except that the effects and makeup were reminiscent of the David Croenberg horror classic, The Fly, and will likely remain with me for a while.
Peter Jackson, the only star and producer of the film, has found a true talent in Neil Blomkamp, who has crafted his vision from his earlier film, Alive in Joburg, and pulled off the surprise hit of the summer. The story is wildly inventive, thought-provoking, and scary. And, his writing is matched by his directing. The pace of the film is relentless, as I was on the edge of my seat for over an hour. This film is not for kids, as it has an “R” rating, and for good reason. But, it is a ton of fun and frankly one of the best of the year. Thank God for creative risk takers taking a chance in Hollywood!