Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9 review

Peter Jackson employs his awesome CGI talent to bring us a wicked satire and cautionary, somber tale about race and discrimination, constructed a very new cast and director. However, the story is told in a mixture of cinema verite clips from the cameras ever present in our society and traditional storytelling that I found to be an uneasy blend.

Twenty years ago, a giant spaceship coasted to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. It did nothing for a month. and humans cut their way in after getting impatient. They found the prawns, slightly more than man sized aliens, mostly dazed, confused, sick, and malnourished. First contact immediately became a disaster relief effort. The million odd prawns were transfered down to a sprawling tent city that quickly became a slum, with an especially nasty Nigerian crime lord preying on the Prawns as they pick over mountains of garbage and squabble over cow heads and cans of cat food. Human/alien tensions are constant and high. Now the relief agency MNU wants to relocate the prawns of District 9 to a new area, further away from Jo'burg.

The public face of the relocation effort is chosen to be a hapless civil servant, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a clueless bureaucrat whose main qualification seems to be his marriage to the daughter of the head of the agency. While he is casually racist and ignorant himself, he seems to be honestly unaware of the darker death squad/concentration camp guard mentality of the armed forces who regularly confront the prawns.

Things never go right as our antihero is filmed going door to door through the slum, knocking on the doors of shanties and trying to get uncomprehending aliens to sign away their civil rights in a forced relocation. For an American, a lot will resonate with our government's repeated treatment native Americans.

He finds gun caches, an illegal egg hatchery (which is casually incinerated), and stumbles finally into the shanty of the only intelligent prawns around, who have been trying to cobble together a repair for their ship for the last twenty years. Wikus confiscates their fuel source, in the process exposing himself to a powerful mutagen that begins to turn him into a prawn.

For Wikus, things go downhill from there. The last half of the film is a lot ordnance exploding, a lot of bodies and heads exploding, as Wikus tries to save himself and make the switch from antihero to hero, which will necessitate the choice to save someone besides himself. There is humor and it is black. The film owes much to our experience of Uprisings, Intifada, and Iraq on TV and in previous movies.

There are issues of course. Aficionados of the X Files will be muttering "Black oil" to themselves before their popcorn is cold. A major plot point is forcing Wikus to fire alien weapons that only respond to prawn DNA, why this never was done with prawns themselves is unexplained. Why the mothership is not full of human scientists is never explained.

As a morality tale, Peter Jackson' team is working the same ground as JK Rowling. His tale is a far more adult, violent, bloodier version, of course. Pureblood and mudblood, wizard and Muggle, human and Prawn, why can't we all just get along? See it.

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