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Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9 (***1/2)

Mmm. Prawns.

** SPOILERS **

"Christopher Johnson" is a great guy. He's a loving father, a brilliant scientist, and probably the best person in District 9. Except he's not so much a person as a slimy, disgusting alien, but I choose not to hold that against him. Sure, Christopher is a gross, humanoid insect monster, but judge him by his actions and his intentions and it turns out he's a pretty swell dude. Everyone else in District 9 is a bottom feeding parasite. 

District 9 is a harsh, grimy, unique piece of science fiction moviemaking, almost entirely devoid of Hollywood trappings. There isn't a single American in the picture and the absence of American sensibilities, though jarring at first, serves District 9 well. There's even self-referential dialogue noting that for once, the aliens did not land in the United States. Boy, did America luck out here. For the most part, District 9 is unpredictable, gory, and bleak. There are no heroes, just deeply flawed, greedy, selfish, desperate characters out to serve their own interests. The most sympathetic character by default turns out to be the Prawn they call Christopher Johnson, and even then, for all we know Christopher will murder us all if there's a sequel.

Early in the 21st century an alien starship appears above Johannesburg, South Africa. For 20 years since first contact the insectoid aliens, referred to disparagingly as "Prawns", have been quarantined in a slum outside of Johannesburg called District 9. Crime, corruption, and even inter-species prostitution (bleecch!) run rampant, with the Nigerian underworld infesting the slums trading catfood (Alf would never eat that, just cats) for Prawn weapons - which humans can't operate because the guns only respond to alien DNA. Meanwhile, Prawns are kidnapped by the government and multinational corporations and are dissected so humans can gain the ability to operate their advanced alien weaponry. Everyone wants the weapons and the secret of how a human might wield them. The Nigerians eschew genetic experiments and go right into cannibalism, believing if they eat enough Prawn they could gain "their power." Gross.

By popular demand of the South African people, District 9 is to be demolished, with the 1.8 million (and counting) Prawns set to be relocated, violently if need be, to the even more severe District 10 two hundred miles away from the city. Placed in charge of the Prawn relocation is Wikus Van Der Mewre (Sharlto Copley), who resembles a South African Christian Bale crossed with a bit of the late Billy Mays. Wikus seems to be a bumbling but well-meaning guy initially, but the way he heads the door-to-door eviction of the Prawns belies a cheerful sadism that grows even more disturbing when he gets accidentally sprayed in the face with an alien fluid while raiding Christopher Johnson's shack. At first, it seemed like Wikus was infected with some disgusting form of alien leprosy, but no, it's even more repulsive than that - the fluid is turning him into a Prawn. And now the government wants his half-breed, increasingly insectine body captured and dissected. The end goal is to find a way for humans to be able to fire those fookin' alien guns. It's all about the fookin' guns!

What follows is a cat and mouse game where the rapidly transforming Wikus, running around with his brand new green tentacled left hand, escapes captivity, hides in District 9, and discovers Christopher Johnson's plan - 20 years in the making - to launch an alien craft that fell off the mothership and was buried under his shack. Christopher wants to dock back into the mothership and leave Earth with his innocent young Prawn son. Trouble is, the alien fluid that infected Wikus was confiscated by the government.

The odd couple team up of Wikus and Christopher comprises the most Hollywood-esque action movie aspect of the story, and it's the least convincing element of District 9. There are some rather big plot holes, specifically as to how Wikus and Christopher are able to get in and out of District 9 and into Johannesburg undetected. There's also the matter of Wikus' cell phone, which he foolishly answers every time his adoring wife calls. His government masters, with their battalion of gun crazy South African roughnecks, can listen into Wikus' calls but don't seem to track him with their satellites.

Anyone who still thinks that the robots in the two Transformers movies didn't look real enough will thrill to the third act battle. The Prawns have a giant battle armor reminiscent of ED-209 from Robocop that they can wear. With his rapidly Prawning DNA, Wikus is able to operate the battle armor and take on his attackers in a brutal smash-em-up that's as ultra-violent as anything I've ever seen in a movie. The alien weaponry includes the ability to emit a magnetic field that can capture bullets in midair and redirect them back like shrapnel. They have sonic cannons that can blow human limbs clean off. The armor can even catch an RPG in mid-air. The end result is gory, bloody deaths all over the screen. The visual effects are astoundingly photo-real, as are the Prawns themselves. Human characters interact with Prawns and everything on screen appears to be flesh and blood.

Unable to make their intended Halo movie, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson instead employ a shaky cam mockumentary style to create a more immediate, less fanciful, likely more memorable science fiction film not for the weak of heart or stomach. The Prawns' design borrows from the look of the Covenant aliens in Halo, with a little bit of Dr. Zoidberg's mouth tendrils (and garbage eating grossness) thrown in. But without the humor of Futurama, or any humor for that matter. With District 9, Blomkamp and Jackson imagine a terrible future of the worst aspects of humanity meeting aliens living among us. At the very least, it'll be a while before eating prawns will be appetizing.

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