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District 9 One of the Better Big Movies This Summer

District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Sony, 2009

I’m generally a sucker for movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, in which a shaky, handheld camera in general makes things seem like they’re really happening as opposed to being staged and shot with many takes.  District 9 is the latest to try a “realism” ploy by making it look like a documentary, full of talking heads interspersed with digital effects that populate an alien slum.  For awhile, it looks like District 9 is going to lose a bit of its wonder attempting this kind of staging.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by visual effects guru Blomkamp, District 9 concerns the efforts of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a man sent on a mission to evict millions of aliens who found themselves in Johannesburg, unable to leave.  Their mothership hovers over the city while their race is sequestered in a section known as District 9.  They try to live as any being would, but of course there are a few bad apples and the human residents of South Africa want them gone.  Wikus is commissioned to do such a thing, but the job is difficult: the aliens have a mixture of human weapons and specially-made weapons that only they can use, and one of them has planted a viral threat for Wikus to discover, which will lead to a transformation on his part.

This transformation leads to being shunned from his loved ones, including his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood).  The government wants him so that they can use him for their evil purposes, so Wikus finds one of the aliens who knows a little something about what might bring Wikus back to normal.  This alien has his son with him, a boy who has never seen his home planet.  He wants to help Wikus, but the very thing that he needs to help the human is the very same thing that will help his people to fly off in the mothership, and supplies are limited.

The world District 9 creates is, of course, an awful one.  One where you can only hope to find that glimmer of decency in the middle of all the turmoil.  The aliens are referred to as “prawns” in derogatory fashion.  The government is almost comically evil, not only wanting to physically move the aliens but to use them and study them.  There are Nigerian gangsters who exploit the aliens for weapons and kill them for sport.

As I mentioned before, the documentary feel of the movie, which mainly takes place at the beginning, is actually a tough sell.  This isn’t exactly the realism that I felt Cloverfield delivered, so the digital aliens look way out of place in the midst of all these talking heads and news coverage.  When the movie transitions completely to non-documentary style is where it begins to really cook.  I think despite the ambitious creative choice, this whole movie could have been told without all this mucking about trying to make it seem like a real-life event.  Luckily, it basically gets abandoned and the real action ensues, and the cautious friendship between the alien, his son, and Wikus becomes a genuine draw.

This is a good one.  It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but we’ve seen far worse this summer.

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