Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aliens Among Us

Grade: A-

Another week, another DVD release for a movie I saw back in August but haven't written about until now. I actually saw District 9 on opening day, back when all I knew about it was aliens and apartheid. I knew nothing about the plot, nothing about who the main character would be, if any, and no idea what to expect. And when watching such an original and innovative movie, that's a good way to enter. District 9 marketing team, well done.

But since by now I think most people know what the movie's about, I won't try to hide what it's about. The movie takes place in a future South Africa in which a group of aliens has landed decades earlier and has been stuck ever since. Given the epithet of "prawns" by the locals for their crustacean-like appearance, they were soon forced into a slum known as District 9 while the humans figured out what to do with them.

At the start of the movie, that answer comes in an order to move the aliens to an even worse slum, District 10. But since the humans must go through the motions of law and order, however ridiculous, a team is sent into District 9 to hand everyone eviction notices, led by weak-willed, son-in-law-of-the-boss Wikus (Sharlto Copley). In the course of his work Wikus ends up sprayed with an alien substance that begins turning him into one of the prawns. And when he discovers how little he can trust his employers to help him, he has no choice but to enter District 9 in search of a cure while on the run from his own people.

The first half hour or so is done entirely documentary-style, giving the history of human/prawn interactions while following the government workers into District 9. The whole section makes this alternate future seem plausible, and makes all the apartheid comparisons readily apparent without pushing it too far. But after so much sci-fi verite, I was relieved when Wikus began his transformation and I realized yes, there would be a Hollywood-style plot coming in, but one totally earned by the grittier opening.

What's not Hollywood is Wikus as a protagonist. In the beginning of the movie, he's a bit of an ass. He's selfish, incompetent, and weak. You think his transformation will force him to grow as a character, and it certainly does in many ways, but even towards the end he's still acting entirely for his own interests. At times he's a hard character to root for, but the combination of his intense need to get rid of the alien arm mixed with Copley's compelling performance make you feel for him anyway.

He's not the only one suffering likability issues. Pretty much the only likable character in the entire movie is Christopher, a prawn who Wikus teams up with in his efforts to become human again. Certainly all of the human characters make Wikus look like a saint, focused as they are solely upon alien weaponry in their efforts to confirm every "big corporations are evil" theories espoused throughout history. It may be a sci-fi action movie, but District 9 is one of the darker and more pessimistic things I've seen this year.

Which is why it's important that the story and the action are so strong, to give something to cut through the darkness. With a number of really cool alien weapons, including a man-piloted robot that outdoes anything in Transformers (though, admittedly, also appears in Avatar), there's a reason everyone was shocked at D9's budget. Especially towards the end, as the movie becomes a Wikus/Christopher buddy action movie as they fight against human and Prawn in their mission, the action sequences continue to amaze.

District 9 is that rare mainstream movie that's as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, and that rare allegory that doesn't gag you on its message. As unsympathetic as Wikus can be at times, he also feels real, which is maybe why we still side with him anyway. After all, who wouldn't do anything to get rid of an alien arm? I wish the movie hadn't been so fuzzy on who could understand whom when, but maybe that's just my preoccupation. And it's certainly hard to watch - both for the thematic darkness and some uncomfortable physical moments (he pulls off his finger nails!). But District 9 is easily one of the most original and affecting movies of the year, and puts an entirely new spin on a genre that could use one.

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