Three good movies in a row? Pretty amazing given all the crap that’s made its way to the big screen this summer. This hits especially close to home as it’s set in Johannesburg, South Africa; as you may be aware, I recently spent a significant amount of time (eight hours) in “the Burg,” as we townies call it. I intentionally avoided any plot description given how spoiler-filled the world is now. All I knew was that the film was made by a first-time director (Neill Blomkamp), with a no-name South African cast, set in South Africa and was some kind of apartheid allegory. Producer Peter Jackson apparently owed Blomkamp a favor as he’d been scheduled to direct the Halo film, only to see it fall through due to studio squabbling. So Jackson helped District 9 get made (it’s somewhat an expansion of an earlier Blomkamp short film).
I will not give away too much of the plot here, not for spoilery concerns, but because I’m pretty fucking lazy and want to get this done quickly, with not a lot of concern for quality of content. The first and last bits of the film are in the increasingly popular “mockumentary” format, detailing how aliens landed in the Burg twenty years ago and how they’ve been integrated with South African society. Did I say integrated with? I meant segregated by. (Hint: I smell allegory!) The documentary focuses on the main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, (channeling both Michael Scott and David Brent at the onset) who is in charge of the movement of the entire alien ghetto (District 9) to a smaller, more-removed-from-Joburg ghetto (District 10). This documentary foreshadows that our Michael/David is going to deal with some adversity – the rest of the movie details those adverse situations and how he deals with them. That’s enough about the plot.
The actors are all great, you’ve probably seen most of them on Law & Order or CSI: Salt Lake City at some point. Actually, no, not a familiar face to be seen. Honestly, I think movies benefit from casting unknowns in major roles, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate oversatured actors from their most prominent roles (and near continuous media coverage). (For example, maybe Christian Bale could star in less than eight movies per year? He is bringing his (intentionally) wooden Batman persona to all his roles. And he’s also apparently a dick.) The lead is a 35 year old first-time actor named Sharlto Copley – I enjoyed his work here. He was pretty entertaining from the onset as the naive office manager happy to enforce species discrimination for his monolithic multinational employer, but with a bit of a soft spot for the aliens (lovingly called “prawns”). At some points his transformation doesn’t ring true, but I attribute that more to the script. It’s unclear what his motivation would be for a couple of his actions in the last act of the movie. Everybody else is largely a stock character ably brought to life – evil corporate CEO, evil military guy, too-hot and somewhat disbelieving wife, sentient alien lizard named Christopher Johnson – you’ve seen them all before.
The broad plot outline is fine, but there are some gaping holes in the will-be-important-later details. Even if the mother ship landed in the Burg, it seems to me there would be a multi-national team of scientists/military covering every square inch of the area to figure out what’s what. That’s not how it’s depicted here and the local police/military overlook some pretty important details. I thought the Nigerian gang that ran the black market in the ghetto was a nice touch and rang pretty true, except they took a few extraordinary risks late in the movie and ran fewer email scams than I would’ve expected. Is this an outlandishly fresh concept? No, you’ve seen similar in 80’s fare like V, Alien Nation and They Live, but this is a nice extension of the concept, with some grown-up ideas integrated with the basic alien shoot-em-up.
Did I say shoot-em-up? Yeah, there is a lot of shit blowing up in this flick. Lots of heads/bodies exploding, limbs torn off, etc. Several scenes evoke The Fly, and several evoke any number of video games involving big fucking guns that cause people to burst. At one point a gun is shot that apparently shoots a fucking pig at someone – the porcine ammo does a surprising amount of damage. (And I assume the shrapnel is bacon, which is pretty delicious during a firefight) I’ve seen some complaints of shakey-cam, but I didn’t really notice. In that regard this was less offensive to me than the typical fight scene in a Jason Bourne movie. Probably the coolest part of the movie is a very Transformer-like exoskeleton that possesses the heaviest of alien artillery. They made this movie for $30 millionish and it looks friggin great, making one wonder why X-Men Origins, Transformers, etc don’t look 5 times better than they do. To summarize: if you enjoy a side of shit blowing up with your apartheid allegory, then this is probably the movie for you.
Where do I rank this? I have to say it’s behind The Hurt Locker, although it’s probably 85% as intense, which is a high compliment indeed. I enjoyed it slightly more than (500) Days of Summer, so I’ll rank it #2 in my summer 2009 rankings. Does Inglorious Basterds dare make it four in a row? We will see….