Jul 14, 2010

District 9: One of the Best of 2009


District 9 oscillates between a documentary style and a traditional 3rd person omniscient story-telling format. The documentary style lends immediacy and realism to the story, while the more traditional format fills in the gaps. I'm pretty sure the first 30 minutes of this movie actually elevated my heart rate (the word that kept running through my mind was "unsettling"). It was an intense viewing experience, mostly due to the principle actor's incredible debut performance.

I am dumbfounded that Sharlto Copley had no prior acting experience before starring in District 9. I can only marvel at the quality of his acting and that of the film-making. The story was good, if not a little unoriginal. It is clearly the writer's intent to throw apartheid abuses into a metaphorical spotlight. I am reminded of the metaphor for Native American-resettlement evident in the movie Avatar, upon which I have already commented. All that aside, wow! If you're going to whine about social and racial injustice, the least you can do is entertain those of us who go to the movies to escape the misery of the real world. Nicely done. I was entertained and only mildly riddled-with-guilt.

We meet Wikus Van De Merwe just as he is being promoted. His company MNU is in charge of District 9, an alien-inhabited slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Through "documentary footage" we learn that the aliens are being evicted to a resettlement camp far outside of town, and Wicus has just been named the boss of the eviction proceedings. He is giddy, excited, downright school-boyish as he sits at his desk answering  interview questions and preparing to go out in the field. Quickly, though, we see another side of his character as he jovially "aborts" illegally spawned alien eggs, makes jokes at inappropriate times with team members who are nervous and uncertain, and fails to provide a flack jacket for another team member (though he is wearing one), saying that they aren't really necessary because everything is going to go smoothly. His demeanor is clearly at odds with the tense and sometimes violent atmosphere. At one point, a severed limb (presumably of one of the human team members) is being loaded into a garbage bag. The carnage doesn't phase him in the least. Then, he is worried about finding a place to get lunch moments after an altercation leads to one alien's violent death. His flippancy toward the aliens who are being evicted and the situation at large (when he encounters the very dangerous voodoo war lord, he smiles into the camera and chides his team to move along, don't make eye contact) served to heighten my interest and feelings of foreboding. I felt that here was a man who was going to be in over his head soon, and I was right. As things go awry, he loses his "cool" (in quotes because his appearance is the very definition of nerdy), batting the camera away in fits of rage and letting more evictions get out of hand. The polite exterior begins to crack, revealing a more uncertain character.

Aside: Here I am reminded of the maddening calm of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. What makes her so sinister? It isn't merely the cruel things she says and does. It is the way in which she says and does them. Her steady tone and civility refuse to acknowledge the truth about her environment (insane people everywhere doing all kinds of crazy stuff) or about her feelings toward her patients. The condescension with which she addresses her charges is just unsettling.

Unlike, Nurse Ratched, Wicus (as the protagonist) is given a strange and unpleasant opportunity to amend his character flaws. He must bump up against his self perception more than once before the story ends. In many ways the film is about personal and cultural identity and how the two are so intertwined. He begins as a South African and a human. At the end, he not only sympathizes more with the alien whose escape he abets, but he becomes an alien. He wants to return to his human identity, but is physically barred from doing so, until further notice. For now he must now forge an alien destiny, hoping that he will one day be restored to his humanity.

I sincerely hope there is no sequel. The end left me with a final impression that is more powerful because I can only guess at Wicus's ultimate fate. If his alien friend survives and returns in three years, he could be returned to normal. The uncertainty at the end is the perfect punctuation of realism in this fantastic film.


  1. This movie left a bad taste in my mouth, and not because I didn't like it, but because the make-up and effects were SO effective that I felt like I could literally taste his transformation.

    His spewing black gunk all over the birthday cake and peeling off his own fingernails made me want to cup my mouth and run for the door.

    Agreed. Kinda hope they don't make a sequel... but would probably be one of the suckers who would want to see it if they did.

  2. I totally agree. It was bordering on too believable. I would see ANYTHING with Sharlto Copley at this point. He smacked it outta the park on this and A-Team.


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