Thursday, August 20, 2009

Movie of the month: DISTRICT 9

Only 4 months to go until the end of the year so time is running out but, whatever plays on movie screens between now and then, District 9 is assured a high spot on my Top Ten of the year. Director, Neil Blomkamp, makes one of the most impressive feature debuts in years with this film.

Several days after seeing the film, it is still very much in my mind… So, what did I like about it?

Story: Unlike most Hollywood summer fare there’s no giant action set piece right off the top – the narrative takes its time to get going (by way of a hyper-realistic and gritty documentary style) that gives us one piece of information after another. Though we are dropped slap bang into the middle of this harsh, violent world of oppression, the basic story set-up comes gradually, ensuring that we fully buy-in to the fantasy elements of it all. When the more conventional story twists and turns unfold, they are twice as effective because they have earned getting there and we are more invested in all of the proceedings.

Character: The same is true of the film’s central protagonist… Unlike most summer fare, we are not presented with the typical heroic figure that we can immediately relate to – quite the opposite in fact! Our “hero” here, Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) is a weasel of a bureaucrat and an outright bigot. He describes the destruction of alien babies with glee, comparing the sound of their burning to “popcorn popping”… He is a weak man, way in over his head, and the furthest thing removed from a classic hero type.

And yet, for me at least, it is with this character that the film is a true triumph not just in this genre but in all the films I’ve seen this year. I can’t remember the last time I saw a character so despicable get put through so much, frustrate me as much or keep me on tenterhooks for such a long period of time.

Much of the gold here comes from mining the audience’s preconceived notions of storytelling… We know how to recognize a main character and we have been trained to recognize a hero – we know what to expect from them and though they may have severe flaws and unlikable characteristics, we expect them to learn from their errors and set things right.

District 9 is one helluva harrowing journey… There is a point in the film where I was sure Wikus was well on his way to being the classic hero and then- he makes a dumb, selfish, frustrating choice that left me terrified and completely at a loss. I had the rug pulled out from under me and found myself not knowing where things would go next. I had that awful feeling that our hero would never be a hero. I found myself subconsciously hoping that the filmmakers wouldn’t go to that dark place of hopelessness and force me to hate them for it. It’s a scary place to be as an audience member. A place as alien to me as the unfortunate “prawns” imprisoned in District 9.

And you know what? …I frickin’ loved it! I’m not going to ruin it for you by revealing whether Wikus ever becomes the hero we desperately want and need him to be but boy, what a journey it took me on and what an emotional release!

Everything else: District 9 has as much action in it as any other summer movie this year and there are some real doosies pounding the eyeballs. Neil Blomkamp has long been known for his cinema vertite visual style but, surprisingly, I never found myself feeling nauseated by the camera movement. He knows when to settle things down with a well-placed static shot, or sweeping wide shot. He also knows how to capture the chaos of a gun battle while always ensuring we know who is where within the action so the stakes always remain high.

The FX work throughout is as good as anything we’ve seen before, if not better. There is a staggering attention to detail and many nice touches that add to the experience. I particularly liked the way each of the aliens was given a unique characteristic (my personal favourite was an alien seen early on wearing a pink bra!).

District 9 will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The level of suffering the aliens and the lead character endure can be tough to watch and the film pulls no punches in its violence and gore. But if you can stomach this, and you want to see a summer movie that is as thought-provoking as it is enthralling, then do yourself a favour and get yourself to a movie theater ASAP!

Until next time folks...