Film Review | Sunday, 13 September 2009
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Aliens - out!

Good science fiction is hard to find. Inevitably, what is supposed to be a feverish mix of paranoia and imagination (or, as author Neil Stephenson memorably put it, ‘idea porn’) will get bogged down into actioners with fancier weaponry, gadgets and inhabitants. It is true that franchises such as Transformers and Alien vs. Predator are not representative of classic sci-fi but sadly, they are too ubiquitous to ignore, and the non-initiates who scoff at the entire genre as a consequence of their popularity can hardly be blamed.
And as if to add insult to injury, recent forays into more ‘cerebral’ sci-fi territory have proven to be both embarrassing and depressing: check out I Robot, an incredibly liberal adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s genre-monolithic story, which appears to have good intentions, only to be gradually but surely hollowed out, as Will Smith chews the scenery and the script chips away any semblance of genuine ethical conundrums. Reaching out a bit further, Steven Soderbergh’s George Clooney-starring 2002 remake of Solaris, the Andrei Tarkovsky classic, fared OK for what it attempted to do, but nobody can deny that this is rather tame: science fiction is one area where ideas can’t be ‘oldies but goodies’ - it is a genre that thrives on the shock of the novel, that takes topical concerns and stretches them to breaking point.
As such, the very concept of debuting director Neill Blomkamp’s Disctrict 9 is very timely indeed. Expanding from Alive in Joburg, a six-minute short film by the South African Blomkamp, whose CV had around that time been largely filled with visual effects work and commercials, District 9 takes the apartheid as its thematic starting point, juxtaposing issues related to segregation and xenophobia onto a very literal alien species, referred to colloquially by the derogatory term ‘prawns’. In 1982, an alien ship mysteriously appears over Johannesburg, and remains stationary. As curiosity gives way to concern, the military forces its way into the mothership, discovering a hoard of sickly aliens and moves them into District 9, a government camp cordoned off from the rest of society, where they are reduced to slum-like behaviour and are forced to co-exist with a Nigerian gang, led by the paralysed Obesandjo. Now, the government has employed an independent military contractor, Multinational United (MNU) to oversee the relocation of District 9 to District 10, a supposedly more polished camp. As the meek, subservient Wikus van de Merwe, an MNU field operative, is put in charge of the operation, he discovers a mysterious canister in the hovel of the alien named Christopher Johnson. After it accidentally sprays onto his face, he begins to slowly metamorphose into an alien himself. With the military on his tail, Wikus must find a cure before it’s too late.

For all its outward freshness (the film employs a Cloverfield-like use of the shaky cam, exacerbated further by the ‘documentary’ snippets which frame it), District 9 is very much a sci-fi geek’s film, employing a patchwork of sources from various classics in the genre with glee. That said, its pitch is refreshingly mature and the concept is woven away with genuine care. The fact that it operates outside the Hollywood rat race may have something to do with it. The film is ‘presented’ by Peter Jackson (just as Tarantino has helped to cheerlead many a struggling production in the past), and, as he acts as producer, his stamp is felt throughout. It is the mark of a filmmaker who is in love with a genre and wants it to do great things, while channelling his many obsessions into a compact-if-baroque frame. And if one could criticise District 9 on any point, it would have to be its ambitious structure. Clocking in at two hours and cramming in enough political subtext and action to fill out a trilogy, it feels as if it could spiral out of control at any point. But let’s be honest: I’d rather have a messy piece of genius than a polished piece of crap. Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s screenplay wrings the heartstrings with wrenching gusto: we see the evolution of Wikus the insufferable bureaucrat into a chequered but still impressive action hero, and his plight keeps the suspense pumping. The humane factor is helped, not hindered by WETA’s ingeniously transparent effects work. Having proven their mettle on the Lord of the Rings saga, they blend the alien and human surroundings, helping to push the concept into that coveted area of documentary-like verisimilitude. The visual aspect is crucial, as even the slightest misstep can prove deadly to a film like this, whose high-concept can easily make the film feel a bit top heavy. But while its flaws (two-dimensional villains, slightly heavy-handed message) can hardly be forgotten, the fact is that Blomkamp has crafted a world from scratch, one that will not let you gasp for air until the very last coda.


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