August 24, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

It took me a week and a half, but I finally got out to the theater with some friends and saw this one. I'd been intrigued by it since first seeing the very interesting advertising campaign for the movie in Los Angeles a few months ago.

Story: A massive alien spaceship appears and begins to orbit Earth, eventually coming to rest hovering over downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. Its alien passengers are stranded; something has gone wrong with their ship and they cannot go home. They will starve if they remain on their ship, so they are ferried down to Earth and begin to co-exist with the inhabitants of J'burg. Unfortunately, they do not get along well and eventually the aliens are segregated into a portion of the city reserved to them, the eponymous "District 9," which is fenced off from the rest of the city. The government outsources management of the area to a corporation, which wants to research alien technology, particularly weapons, while it allows the district to degenerate into a horrendous slum, inhabited by the alien refugees and some humans (mainly criminals preying off of the alien refugees). But there are still secrets the aliens haven't shared with the humans, and vice versa.

Script: We begin in media res as the corporation is going to attempt to relocate the aliens to a new habitation area outside of the city -- in theory a good idea but the whole thing appears to be quite sinister. Incredibly, on the eve of this massive operation, the corporation hands off control of it to a guy who appears to have had no idea he was being considered for the job -- leading the audience to think that he is being set up to fail. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and helpfully when accents become too thick for American audiences to follow, there are subtitles. In terms of storytelling, the writers don't pull any punches -- this is not a Hollywood movie.

Cast: American audiences will not know any of the actors in the movie at all. Most of the actors speak with Afrikaans accents, which are initially difficult but the ear quickly grows used to them. Another crop of characters are Nigerian, and their accents are thick enough that they must be subtitled. The alien language is also subtitled, and it seems that many humans have taken the trouble to learn it, but they communicate in English, which the aliens seem to mostly understand. The principal actor is quite convincing in his portrayal of a man who quickly realizes he's in way over his head and has to put together the skill set needed to survive in extreme circumstances on the fly. The other humans are generally cardboard cut-outs, unfortunately; the paramilitary antagonist and the corporate heavy are one-dimensional and uninteresting. The human criminals living in the alien slum are somewhat more interesting than the corporate types but they too are left largely one-dimensional. The aliens are all CGI-generated, and their voices and language are difficult to pierce in terms of emotion.

Cinematography: Initially, the movie appears to be made in documentary style, with captioned interviews and what appear to be immersion-action shots (complete with jerky, bouncy camera work). But after a time, the movie appears to switch back and forth between the "documentary" and higher-quality film directed from an omniscient point of view. This is done very gradually at first, but after a time the switches between interviews and documentary shots and the omniscient perspective become more fluid. This appears to have been intentional on the director's part rather than the result of having switched styles halfway through principal photography. It effectively tells the story, but in retrospect it is a very different way of telling the story. In a way, the seamless back-and-forth between immersed and omniscient perspectives is the most remarkable thing about the movie.

Costumes: Utterly credible. Most of the humans we see are in contemporary dress or military-style uniforms. Since much of the story takes place in and around a slum, the bulk of the costumes are poverty clothing -- blankets, flimsy T-shirts, and such. The aliens wear clothing, apparently bastardized from human clothing, as well. They also seem to paint or tattoo themselves to distinguish themselves from one another.

Effects: CGI is now de rigeur, and the CGI in this movie is very good. All of the aliens are created this way and they fit flawlessly into their environment. The aliens are believable, and so are the combat scenes. More things blow up spectacularly than is strictly realistic. Most impressive, though, is the alien ship hovering over the city -- it looks like a derelict, and it is partially obscured by haze and smog. It is this image of the ship, not always centered in the shot because the inhabitants of the city have grown used to its presence, which is the hallmark of the movie.

Music: The only noticeable score is used in the opening and closing credits, and during the omniscient scenes. The documentary portions of the movie are left unscored, which after a time becomes an almost unconscious way of indicating the switch in perspective. The sound effects are intense and ungentle, but that is in keeping with the overall tone of the movie.

Comments: Obviously, the movie is an allegory for inhumane treatment of refugees, a cry to do better. It is difficult to not form deep sympathy with the alien refugees, in particular the aliens who come grudgingly to the aid of the human hero (who is, after all, formerly one of their oppressors). The hero himself elicits terrible sadness, especially by the end of the movie. The theme -- men given power over other men are the true monsters -- has been done before. But the context of man oppressing alien refugees allows greater rein to that concept and perhaps a deeper exploration of it than a popular audience could stomach if the victims were human as well. The balance of the need for humane treatment of refugees and the expense and burden to a government of providing it are explored briefly in the opening minutes and not really touched on again; hopefully, the movie gets audiences thinking about ways that this most critical of questions can be answered in a manner that is morally acceptable.


DaveBuck said...

Looking forward to seeing this one but looks like I'll be waiting to rent.

Dang Stumble upon button just gives me an error two. I thought I got it to work a few days ago but I'm wondering if I imagined it.

DaveBuck said...


edit: Stumble upon --> StumbleUpon
edit: two --> too

Whit said...

Better music than the original?

Click here