Monday, August 10, 2009

It's no fun being an illegal alien—or changing into one: District 9

Not invaders so much as castaways, the aliens wash up over Johannesburg, their great ship looming, suspended and ominously silent for a long while until we humans finally break in and discover the lot of them ailing and with no place to go. More than two decades later the aliens have become the new gypsies, a nationless people unwanted, feared, segregated, blamed for all sorts of things. They’re already loosely confined to zone, but our story begins proper when a private multinational is hired to round them all up and send them to a more remote colony, out of sight, out of mind, herded into the ghetto.

District 9 takes a rather visionary approach to our anxious dreams of extraterrestrial first contact, picking up cues from a lot of great science fiction prose, the sort that rarely gets made into movies. (It’s also entirely possible that parts of its story were inspired by Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones.) By rendering the aliens as ostracized refugees in South Africa the film opens the doors wide to invite all manner of metaphorical interpretation, grounding its narrative in the landscape of apartheid and having human characters of all racial backgrounds disparage their visitors with reactionary, colonialist rhetoric, their intolerance made ostensibly acceptable by the humanoid yet crustacean-like aliens’ all too evident Otherness. But this remarkable feature debut from South African-Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, made under the auspices of producer Peter Jackson, also functions quite nicely as engrossing comic book stuff. In fact, the deeper it ventures into pulp territory the better it gets.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is our unlikely protagonist, a naïve, clownish, moustached bureaucrat who earns his high profile position of supervising the relocation project through pure nepotism. He’s a Kafkaesque tragic character in more ways than one, having first been ill-prepared for a mission fraught with issues of miscommunication and conflicting agendas, and then coming into contact with an alien fluid that infects him with some mysterious gene-altering virus. Wikus could never be mistaken for a hero—it’s only his process of transfiguration, and his sudden value to military strategists, that forces him to become heroic. He gets lucky, and his sheer will to survive is strong. He becomes an unwitting symbol for the possibility of racial conciliation, and embarks on a bloody adventure that slowly turns desperate self-interest into something far grander.

District 9 is wildly ambitious. By its brilliantly realized finale these ambitions are surprisingly fulfilled. Its difficulties arise mostly through a sense of uncertainty with form. Of the more mature filmmakers one might imagine taking on such a project—Paul Verhoven or David Cronenberg spring to mind—I can’t think of any who would have stuck with the limiting faux documentary approach developed by Blomkamp and his co-scenarist Terri Tatchell, which simply causes a lot of unnecessary problems. Opening with the news show style commentaries and character introductions offers the filmmakers a perfectly legitimate—if rather generic—opportunity to get a lot of exposition out of the way. But they continue to try and convince us that we’re watching a kind of documentary long afterwards, and it’s only when the form’s limitations become too constraining—we eventually need to see characters in situations that no diegetically-placed camera could possibly capture—that the film starts breaking its own rules and things get confused. With its handheld, vérité aesthetic, the faux doc format allows filmmakers to cheat certain things that a more classical approach is less forgiving of, but Blomkamp hardly seems like he’s trying to make The Blair Witch Project—on the contrary, he seems a skilled craftsman, so I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t go al the way and embrace the aesthetic demands of an unmistakably fiction film when his story started begging for it.

So District 9 gets off to a wobbly, distracting start, but rest assured it will more than make up for it, partially just because the story is so well-structured and the political—at times outright satirical—undercurrents so rich. Copley compliments this by hurling himself into the squirm-inducing physicality of the role and surrendering completely to the risky notion of the totally bumbling protagonist. Wikus is definitely not cut from the Cronenbergian model of the reflective hero fascinated by his own terrifying metamorphosis. The guy is really an idiot, and through it serves the drama effectively the meager redemption he finds is hard-won. This is what makes this sort of story work, the understanding that heroism is always a balance of character and circumstance, and once in while the latter grossly outweighs the former. In any case, it’s a must-see for anyone with even the slightest appetite for smart spectacle. It sure beats the hell out of the rest of the current summer stock.

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