Thursday, January 21, 2010

Emigrant Extraterrestrials I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

This may just be the best time in history for filmmakers with ideas. The numbers behind dollar signs on a film's budget are becoming more and more arbitrary as indicators of the end result. In the last twenty years the independent filmmaker has risen to prominence in a huge way. The makers of small films are being recognized for their ideas and given chances to expand their vision into big budget projects. David Gordon Green, the same man who directed the beautiful, no-budget George Washington is currently directing a remake of Suspiria. Small time quirky comedy directors Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach now have access to the Hollywood elite and whatever resources they could hope for. Music video directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are now making critically acclaimed children's and super hero movies. Those mumblecore kids are getting more and more famous by the day despite my continued perplexity at their popularity. People have caught on to my favorite independent director Ti West and the fellows at Glass Eye Pix, giving them some much-deserved love and attention. And recently South African called Neill Blomkamp, on the strength of a delightful and clever short film called Alive In Joburg, in which puppety alien throw cars around while the locals bemoan their presence, was given the chance to direct a film that the whole world would have seen. That project fell through but he still got to show the world that first-rate talent doesn't come from major studios; it typically comes from people with ideas that extend beyond how best to frame explosions and women in cut-offs. 

District 9
by Neill Blomkamp
Open on a slight, nervous corporate lackey called Wikus Van De Merwe. He's just been given the job of a lifetime or so it would seem. In 1982 an Alien ship came through our atmosphere hovering just over Johannesburg, South Africa. Nothing happened for a good long while and eventually the government sent some guys up to cut their way into the ship. What they found inside had the look of an alien crack house. The aliens (which are given the nickname "Prawn" for their resemblance to the sea-creature, though they look more like human cockroaches to me) were mal-nourished and seemed to be living in their own filth. They were brought down in helicopters so that they could be taken care of, but trouble soon followed. The South Africans learned their language and taught their own to the aliens and soon after people started taking advantage of them. Like some ethnic groups in South Africa, the aliens were not treated quite as nicely as say, a visiting white soccer team. Soon the squalor they were found in is replicated on the ground and they're relegated to a slum called District 9 where polite society doesn't have to interact with them. Of course they're still awfully close to civilization and the rest of the world is watching so a shady firm called MNU is tasked with finding a home for them. Their solution is District 10, a tent city set-up even further from the speciesist public. As you may have guessed it's Van Der Merwe who's been put in charge of the move - his first task: getting all the aliens to sign their eviction notice so that the move is nice and legal. And because MNU isn't quite as amiable as Van Der Merwe seems on the surface, they send a gun-toting mercenary escort led by the bloodthirsty Koobus Venter to make their argument a little more persuasive.

While Van Der Merwe and his Black Water escort fuck shit up in District 9, a Prawn called Christopher Johnson and his son are busy collecting something. When the mothership landed someone turned a camera on in time to catch a piece of the ship detaching; as no one's found the piece, they don't know what it's for. Johnson has spent his time on the ground collecting drops of fuel from other scraps of the technology brought down by his fellow aliens. I think you can guess what the fuel is going to power. On the day Van Der Merwe shows up Johnson collects the last drop but is interrupted when the gawky man makes his rounds. Johnson abandons the bottle of fuel and Van Der Merwe finds it and accidentally sprays himself in the face with it. That's when the fun begins - the fuel gets into his blood after he's injured by a prawn and then it begins fucking with his genes. He starts turning into one of the aliens. This fucks with his day in more than one way. First of all, how is he going to explain his changing into an alien to his wife? Second of all, once the head of MNU, also Van Der Merwe's father-in-law, gets wind of this transformation he has the poor dope secreted off to a lab in a sub-basement at headquarters. Now, the reason MNU is so interested in solving the alien problem is because they are also one of the world's largest weapon manufacturers. They've been trying to figure out the secret to the alien weaponry for years but haven't gotten very far because the prawns engineered their guns to interact with them biologically - you can't fire a prawn gun without a prawn arm. So naturally when they find out that something is turning Van Der Merwe into the world's first prawn-man, they want to dissect him to figure out what it is, mass-produce it, and start using the alien weaponry. Wikus knows that there's little chance that his having a wife (the head honcho's daughter, no less) is going to stop him from getting cut open for science, so he breaks out and tries to find the one person - or should I say prawn - who knows what's happening to him. But he's only got so much time before either MNU catches up with him or he resembles just another impoverished alien.
Well if you want to talk about unprecedented, you could do worse than to talk about the people involved in District 9. First of all Sharlto Copley as Wikus gives one of the strongest performances of any first-time actor. It could be that he really is the nervous Van Der Merwe (minus the bigotry, of course) in reality, but that his performance seems authentic for every second of his screentime is incredibly impressive as he is almost always the focus of the action. I'll admit that I find something inexplicably hypnotic about the South African accent but I still think that everyone in this movie is great (most of them first-timers), Copley foremost among them. The editing, sound design and production direction are all first rate and cinematographer Trent Opaloch must be commended as his only prior experience was on the director's early shorts. Neill Blomkamp had never directed anything longer than a few minutes in length before today's film. In what has since become fanboy lore, Peter Jackson had, on the strength of Blomkamp's few short films, asked the director to helm the big screen adaptation of Halo he was executive producing. When that fell through, Jackson gave him the keys to Hobbiton and said "go nuts." With 30 Million dollars and the crack special effects team behind Jackson's latest projects, Blomkamp turned in one of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Pretty impressive, no? His and Terri Tatchell's script is at turns thought-provoking and irreverent and his direction is pretty goddamned excellent. The film becomes all the more impressive when you consider the sheer amount of footage that must have been shot. District 9 employs the ever-popular found footage tack, alternating between interviews/documentation of the mission happening in the present, security camera and TV news footage, and then the source-less narrative angles for the stuff that happens with Christopher Johnson and Wikus' attempts to save himself. I was a little skeptical of the switch from verite to source-less footage but eventually I stopped caring because the story begged for my attention. 

If you're the kind of obsessive who can't let lapses in logic pass by unnoticed, District 9 is probably not gonna be your movie. Whatever, more movie for me. Sure the film has a lot of loop-holes, but it's science-fiction so take it easy. The whole point of science-fiction is to posit something implausible to get people thinking about shit. I know that some people's wariness came from the fact that sci-fi has recently meant serial killers in space and robots putting each other in headlocks but trust me when I say that District 9 is still as good as all that with its flawed logic. I will say that I was willing to overlook the majority of its flaws because people are the villain of the story; I was unabashedly rooting for humans to get blown up with lasers for most of the movie. Blomkamp has said that the film is based on his experiences growing up in South Africa during apartheid and really if you set anything in South Africa and someone's going to think apartheid. The aliens are a fairly obvious stand-in for the blacks who were treated with contempt by those in charge of the country those few years ago. Blomkamp doesn't strictly blame whites for the hatred though. No the real problem is that people were not viewing each other as equals. So rather than draw color lines (though it does make sense that both the head of MNU and the lead mercenary would be white men) Blomkamp simply takes his anger at the situation out on people in general; it's only when Van Der Merwe treats the alien Christopher with the same kindness he reserves for his family does anything positive happen. Now that's the kind of moralizing I can get behind.
People have accused Blomkamp of being less than his message because of his portrayals of the Nigerian warlords who run guns and prostitutes in District 9 but I really don't think he was trying to say anything overtly negative about them as a whole. I view this as more a Grampa Simpson aside that doesn't mean quite what you think. After all a few dozen gangsters don't stand in for the whole country, do they? One can criticize the disgraced former governor of Alaska without humiliating the people of her state, so why does a fictional warlord mean that Blomkamp has it out for Nigerians? I would argue that between the violence and greed (represented by MNU and the gangs in equal measure) humanity has a tough time emerging. Van Der Merwe is far from perfect and it takes quite literally the most extreme circumstances imaginable for him to look past his own prejudices and rise to the occasion. And when he does the film enters its most enjoyable phase, the "let's blast the shit out of things with Peter Jackson's special effects crew" phase. Blomkamp's handling of the action sequences is really stellar and he takes every opportunity to do something innovative and nifty with the camera. The siege of MNU and the crawl to the mothership at the end are so awesomely directed that its not hard to wish Jackson had secured him that job directing Halo. As an aside I'd like to say that this is the kind of film that carries on the legacy of James Cameron's best work while the man wallows in his own egoism; this is the film I wanted when I heard he was making Avatar. This is a film as good and exciting as Aliens or Terminator that shares their fusion of hi and low tech, their heart and brains.

Peter Jackson's influence is all over District 9. The faux-documentary that makes up the first act is right out of Jackson's excellent Forgotten Silver and the splat-tastic second and third acts all drip with the same gooey excesses and harrowing claustrophia of Bad Taste and Dead Alive. In fact the only thing missing is Jackson's sentimental streak and after seeing his dreadful take on The Lovely Bones I'd say it's a good thing he's got this movie to be proud of this year. The effects in the film are also about as excellent as I've seen. The prawns are a thing of wonder and make for convincing (not to mention sympathetic) enough company that you don't mind spending the movie with a subtitled alien pining for his home-planet. Their animation is pretty seemless and their design sufficiently other. Beyond that, all the havoc that Wikus and Christopher wreak is both fun to watch and flawlessly incorporated. Like J.J. Abrams, Blomkamp makes sure to mask his effects with shaky cam so we don't notice them being effects (something Jackson would do well to take note of). So not only could I enjoy the idea of people exploding I could also revel in the realistically gory spectacle.
District 9 has precedents and is far from a wholly original film but it is both winning and about something, so I look past its derivativeness and occasional plot-hole and simply enjoyed myself. I could root for both of its leads because they were concerned for the well-being of others, even as not-great examples of their species roam around breaking shit and indulging in their most base impulses. As much as you or I might like to go around blowing shit up to take our aggression at the staggering amount of people who waste time banning marriages, shooting each other, driving SUVs and keeping women under burkas, we can't. Part of me really enjoyed vicariously taking my rage out on humanity, but the rest of me felt for Blomkamp, who had to live through apartheid in order to tell this story - that he emerged from the conflict with a sense of humour is really kind of amazing - knows that it's people who are their own worst enemy and his film is rather more touching than I expected it to be. Does everything in the film make sense? Certainly not, but the point is to get people talking and if anyone walks away from District 9 just a little afraid that they'll get blown up if they treat other people like shit based on something as trivial as where they're from or how they look, then I'd call the film a success. Granted we live in an age of Michael Bays and McGs so who knows what penetrates the massive unconscious anymore. Regardless of its reception, I still call District 9 a success and one hell of a movie.


Juanita's Journal said...

People have accused Blomkamp of being less than his message because of his portrayals of the Nigerian warlords who run guns and prostitutes in District 9 but I really don't think he was trying to say anything overtly negative about them as a whole. I view this as more a Grampa Simpson aside that doesn't mean quite what you think.

Of course the director of DISTRICT 9 was being negative about the Nigerians. Even a blind man could have told you this.

For example, if the aliens are supposed to be a metaphor for the black South Africans, why did Blomkamp portrayed their sexual relations with the Nigerians as something negative? What was he trying to say? That for white and black South Africans to sexually fraternize with each other was repulsive? Because that was the message I was getting.

Scøut said...

I see your point and can absolutely understand arguments that run counter to mine, but allow me to elaborate for a moment. I don't think that it was necessarily that sex with Nigerians was negative, it was the notion of prostitution as a whole as one of many things done to exploit the aliens. Obesandjo and his gang are, to me, a representation of the same kind of mistreatment that MNU is responsible for on the ground floor. Both are portrayed as equally evil because both are after Van Der Merwe because he affords them new ways to kill other people. They are there to point out that people should help each other, but that more often than not there are people with just as evil an impulse as any corporation - there are Iagos everywhere. They're negative connotation has nothing to do with their being Nigerian, specifically. I saw nothing about their portrayal that was unique to their origin. What I got out of his depiction of them was not that sexual relations were something to be looked down upon but it was that it the fact of prostitution that bothered people. I don't see it as being a race issue, either. Nor Do I think that Blomkamp intended to say that whites and blacks having sexual relations was the problem. I'd be curious to know what gave you that impression. I think that the aliens standing in for oppressed blacks and being ripped off by the Nigerians who are also blacks means only that if one maligned group cannot help another, no solution will be found (that there are black and jewish anti-gay advocates is to me the kind of reprehensible irony he was looking to zero in on). To me the film posits that despite our obvious differences solutions are found in fraternization and in finding workable solutions to existing problems. For example, it takes Van Der Merwe's problem for Christopher Johnson to see what MNU is doing to the other prawns. Van Der Merwe does come to see that Johnson's trying to get help for his people trumps his personal concerns, in the same way that personal prejudice and hang-ups need to be shed in favor of global concern. I don't see the treatment of Nigerians as anything but a hypothetical - they had to be from somewhere, didn't they? And that's not to say that Blomkamp couldn't have made them South African or Tanzanian (as they were apparently his inspiration for the scenes with the witch-craft) but I do honestly think it was less about trying to be xenophobic then it was a non-sequitur to try and show that the problems of one country are everyone's problem and to ignore them is criminal. As an arbitrary example, look at the way other countries have responded to say the crises in Sierra Leone or Sudan. Of course, I could be 100% wrong as I haven't heard what Blomkamp was actually thinking but I strongly feel that he was not making a statement about Nigeria as a country. I'd love to know your thoughts.