District 9 - Movie Review
Anyone in the world of video-gaming will tell you there are three movies they're waiting to see on the big screen. One is Metal Gear Solid, one is Half Life, and one is Halo. Those who rarely hold a joystick will have no idea what those titles mean, so I'll clarify. One involves espionage-action with convoluted political messages, one involves a gravity gun, and the other has lots of aliens, many more guns, and also some convoluted political messages. The film District 9 has just about all of those things, which will please many video-gaming enthusiasts, but it's a bit muddled in the midst of its messages which tend to bog down the action, or have messages too subdued due to the emphasis on entertainment.
If there's one thing to learn from District 9, it's that South Africa is not that great of a place. In fact, it's probably one of the worst places to end up. Especially if you happen to be a giant shrimp-like creature from space. These creatures arrive rather inexplicably, have their massive mother-ship stall out inexplicably over the city, and are inexplicably pulled out and set up in a ghetto shanty town of their own. But what can you do? They look an awful lot like giant cockroaches, appear to defecate just about anywhere, and really have no regard for hygiene or waste disposal. I would have liked to see the government try to put one up in the Four Seasons, but the film doesn't manage to take these creatures far from their ruins.
The film is even less forgiving to its human counterparts, who are either alarmingly incompetent, alarmingly inhuman, or both. The central protagonist Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is more drawn to the former. He enters the screen with a sort of puppy-dog charm, excited by his new job duty of delivering eviction notices to the "Prawns" door-to-door. Such a job description sounds like a hilarious prospect, but Disctrict 9 insists on being a simulation of such a scenario rather than an entertaining embodiment of it. His attempts to deliver notices is met with angry clicks, dismembered arms, and hits a major snag when he is unintentionally maced by a mysterious fuel container.
All this is conveyed through the use of segments featuring documentary-like cinematography and segments featuring cinematography based purely upon the narrative. This doesn't really work. Documentaries are completed with an implicit knowledge of someone behind the camera capturing footage in real-time, narrative cinema seeks to hide that operator by any means possible. Switching between the two becomes distracting, disenchanting, and often has one being far more entertaining than the other.
District 9 is a special-effects laden spectacle featuring a handheld look. That description is pretty similar to the way people described Cloverfield when it first came out. But Cloverfield worked because it was fully dedicated to its medium. Its subject appeared captured on one reel of a single handheld camera, with a present camera operator who had his own character. It didn't appear to have the benefit of narrative flashbacks, but managed to do so with the narrative device of the single tape being used a second time to capture the chaos. Most importantly, Cloverfield was very human. There was something not just political to grab on to, but something about the connections we have with each other, how those connections change, and how that connection can never be severed.
District 9 certainly has messages concerning apartheid, segregation, and racial injustice. It's not hard to see that. It also has mech-fights featuring pigs being picked up with gravity guns and shot at soldiers just before utilizing body-exploding lasers at even more soldiers. The comedic value in that scenario doesn't quite mix with those themes being delivered so heavy-handed. It was even a tad more successful with Starship Troopers.
With all that said, District 9 manages to be one of the best action films of 2009. It's entertaining, if not always quite fun. The exploding body bits certainly earn an R rating, but considering all the video-game fans checking this one out, that won't be much of an issue. All in all, it'll do well in biding their time before a Halo movie gets produced.