Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Prawn Too Far; District 9 Movie Review

So originally I was going to go to a burlesque show last night (Hi Mom!), and in preparation for that experience I was already mentally composing my blog entry. It would have been about my ambiguity on the subject: on the one hand, it is attractive women dancing, which I understand has a certain appeal to many, and people should be free to express their bodies. On the other hand, a small part of me still feels that "burlesque" is a fancy way of saying 'stripping.' Not that there's anything wrong with stripping, per se. Actually, according to my home province Saskatchewan, there is something wrong with it, which is why it's illegal there to serve alcohol in a strip club. So there would have been a tour de force of conflicting emotion and ethical conundrum, and at some point, I'd talk about actually seeing the show.

But a few guys were out of town, a few were busy, and the few remaining were also ambiguous about the whole thing.

So we went to see Quentin Tarintino's Inglorious Basterds instead. I'm not a big fan of Tarintino. Don't get me wrong; I like all out to the point of ridiculous action flicks--Shoot 'Em Up, the movie where there's a birth delivery/gun fight, is a favorite of mine. What I don't like in Tarintino's movies is that they try to have it both ways; they try to be big important art films and ridiculous action movies at the same time. Exhibit A: the Kill Bill series. Although I'll admit, those are the only two Tarintino movies I've actually seen, and I honestly do believe that a film can be a ridiculous action movie and important artistically. So that blog post would have been a tour de force of conflicting emotion and ethical conundrum, and at some point, I'd talk about actually seeing the movie.

But it was sold out when we got there, and the only other choices were GI Joe and District 9, so we went to see District 9.

(I'm reaching new levels of non sequitor preambles here. Laurence Sterne would be proud.)

District 9 is a sci-fi film about how people interact with aliens. Its plot isn't entirely original for science fiction in general, but it somewhat of a novelty for the big screen. An alien ship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. And in case you missed the significance of the location, the characters remind you: this isn't an alien encounter in New York, or Washington, but at the heart of former apartheid Africa. After a year or so of communication silence, a joint government initiative forces their way into the spacecraft, and finds a million or so aliens, slowly starving to death. The giant, chittering creatures--soon derogatorily nicknamed 'prawns' for their appearance--are relocated to District 9 just outside of Johannesburg. The district quickly descends into a slum, and the prawn live in complete squalor. Xenophobia in Johannesburg rises to a breaking point, and Multi-National United, the agency that has been contracted to monitor the prawn, decides to forcibly relocate the prawn to another area further from the city.

Enter MNU official Wikus van der Merwe, the man in charge of informing the prawn of their relocation. Originally, Wikus comes off as a slightly annoying bereaucrat; imagine a toned-down Michael Scott (more the British version than the American) and you're not far off. But over the course of the day, we see a more complete picture: he's somewhat cowardly when dealing with the military side of MNU, somewhat incompetent, since he got his job because of his father-in-law, and just as xenophobic and racist as anyone else. His sole redeeming virtue is his devotion to his wife, a fairly stunning Dutch woman. As an example of the kind of man Wikus is, before moving the prawns, by UN law MNU needs them to sign documents saying they've received 24 hour notice of eviction. Usually, Wikus bribes them into signing with cans of cat food. When one of the prawn objects to the legality of the eviction, Wikus plays hard ball: realizing that the younger prawn nearby is the first's son, he tells the prawn that the child is living in squalor, and thus Wikus has to take the child away--unless, of course, the prawn would like to just sign, and forget the whole thing. Charming. He's far more concerned with getting a good performance review than helping the first alien race humanity has come across.

Unfortunately for him, he doesn't seem likely to get either. Due to a series of mishaps, Wikus soon finds himself a fugitive from the MNU. The movie can be roughly divided into three parts: an early documentary mode that describes the aliens' arrival up to the early stages of the eviction; Wikus' fugitive run, and a confrontation at District 9. Personally, despite its slowness, I preferred the early documentary part, although the whole film was entertaining. You might guess from what I've described that the film essentially depicts the prawn as refugees, and the film definitely has a sharp postcolonial point. It's too bad I already did a postcolonial paper on aliens, because after this movie, I want to do another one. The prawn are so alien it's easy to justify the subhuman conditions they are treated to--which, of course, is the point.

The film strikes an interesting balance between being an anti-alien-based blockbuster summer flick, and, well, being an alien-based blockbuster summer flick. Originally, no one in the film is at all likeable; our main character, Wikus, is pretty contemptible. MNU in general seems composed of petty beareaucrats, militia men working out their aggression on the aliens, and businessmen obsessed with figuring out how to profit off the prawn and their alien weaponry. The native Africaners are represented by those running a black market district for the aliens, occasionally killing one and eating it to gain their strength (which, frankly, went a step too far, but whatever). Even the prawn, with one exception, are constantly seen as too bestial, too ugly, too inhuman to sympathize with. (The sole exception is the smarter prawn mentioned earlier, assigned the human name Christopher Johnson.)In most alien films like this the aliens are portrayed as remote and evil (Think Independence Day), but putting the aliens at the humans' mercy really turns the tables. This is the state of the film for about half of its running time; then it flips, and becomes, bluntly, a balls-out action film. It's very well done action, but all the previous ambiguities are thrust aside. It's like someone saw the film and said, "yeah, that's deep, but howzabout we rewrite the ending so it's... you know, profitable?"

It should also be noted that this is not the movie to take young children to, regardless of its superior depth over most alien-based blockbusters. There's some pretty gory moments in those action scenes, and Wikus has a tendency to drop the f-bomb a lot when he's under stress--and as far as his character's concerned, this film is a pressure cooker.

Again, both halves of the movie are well done; the story is compelling, the execution works fine, and the special effects are superb, especially for the prawn themselves. But it feels like the film is a compromise, and I left the theatre wondering what the original movie was meant to be.

Later Days.

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