Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In "District 9," Two Is a Crowd

Oh, "District 9," how I loved you. Yet, you had to go and burn me... or make me pop like a sack of meat with a firecracker inside of it.

It was hard to ignore that first, cryptic trailer that came out a few months ago. The film simply looked like nothing else, with its ripped-from-a-news-broadcast footage of South Africa and the ominous spacecraft hovering, cemented in the skies above the city. A later trailer revealed that the film featured some action, but still left most of it shrouded in mystery. "District 9" is the brain child of first-time writer/director Neill Blomkamp, a protégé of Peter Jackson. Blomkamp, unlike his mentor, knows how to keep his running times in check. Unfortunately, it only takes his film about 30 minutes to more or less abandon everything it aspires to be.

Those first thirty minutes, though, are fascinating. Twenty years prior to the start of the film, a massive alien spacecraft parked itself over Johannesburg, then did nothing. The mysterious inactivity persisted for so long that government forces actually broke into the ship. Inside, they found countless, dying aliens. In an effort that walked the line between self-preservation and charity, the humans relocated the aliens to a slum outside of the city – District 9. The result, years later, is a strikingly familiar portrait of a race that has been segregated, alienated and forced into desperation. The humans, by and large, fear the aliens. While they are a wellspring of controversy among the humans, the aliens have been afforded few rights or dignities. Now, a private organization, Multinational United, has been hired to relocate the aliens to the promisingly-titled District 10.

"District 9," at first, is essentially a documentary. Blomkamp provides all of this background information through interviews with fictional experts and witnesses, and brilliant use of existing news footage. Obviously, there are special effects added to this footage, but their execution is seamless and presented with such believable context that they truly look as if they are taken from tomorrow night's news. Within this unnamed documentary, the film's premise gains an astonishing amount of relevance.

MNU does not evict the aliens from their homes in District 9 with brute force, but with an all-too-familiar mix of bureaucracy and military intimidation. We watch these evictions take place through on-the-scene camera crews hired by MNU, as they follow the project leader, Wikus Van De Merwe (played by the fairly talented unknown, Sharlto Copley). Hired by way of nepotism, he seems barely equipped for the job. Yet, his role is far more complex than this. He seems to be the only man who understands the alien language or has any considerable familiarity with District 9. He sometimes uses this knowledge to defuse tensions between the bewildered aliens and the tense military force. Other times, however, he openly manipulates the aliens, forcing them to sign forms that consent to eviction. The footage is downright fascinating, as the aliens become incredibly sympathetic, if only through the humans' methodical mistreatment of them.

As the film nears the half-hour mark, however, hiccups appear. Suddenly, we are following aliens, as they attempt to build a device. Are cameras following these aliens? How would that be possible? It is not; the documentary footage tapers away from this point, forward. The film is abruptly shifting into a completely different storytelling medium – a dramatic one. With this shift, all of the striking immediacy and unsettling relevance that comes with the documentary form wilts. The audience is left to hastily adjust its expectations of the film. This is no longer a story told in facts, on a grand scale. It is now something far more commonplace – a personal story – a fictional drama.

The rest of the film plays out as Van De Merwe is exposed to the device said aliens were creating. It affects him profoundly, and leads him to drastically reconsider his relationship with the aliens. The film's final act, having completely abandoned the subtle realism of the first act, is a bombastic action film. It becomes riddled with gory violence (alien weapons tend to pop humans... yes, pop them) and all of the depth that the film began with is trampled over until it barely flickers amid the chaos.

The action in the film's second half is suitably intense and well-executed but it has absolutely no place in a film that starts off the way "District 9" does. Furthermore, the non-documentary footage is shot in handheld, as well, seemingly to blur the lines between the two styles. It renders the film schizophrenic.

Van De Merwe's arc as a character slightly mitigates the sloppiness. Shortly after being exposed to the device, he is subjected to a truly perverse series of experiments that mark a momentary return to the documentary footage and easily the most emotional moments of the film. Later, when he finally decides to stand up for himself, the ensuing assault is extremely cathartic. He, however, ultimately proves to have selfish motivations. One could argue that his progression is designed to ironically mirror the humans' actions against the aliens, but his plotline is marred with so much pining for his wife and stilted heroism that it is difficult to divine a message from it all.

That is not to mention all of the popping going on. If Blomkamp were not a human himself, I would wonder if he hated us, portraying so many human misdeeds and then climaxing with a series of relentlessly gory killings. By the end of the film, in fact, there is little question that the humans are thoroughly petty and violent people. The aliens, on the other hand, are very well animated and elicit quite a bit of an emotional response, especially because the film focuses on a father and son who are simply trying to get home. Yet, the film ends on a strikingly romantic note between humans and the aliens get their pound of flesh (literally), as well. Thus, the film even fails to be cohesive on a thematic level.

It is hard to say what would have made "District 9" work. For the sake of cohesion, Blomkamp really should have committed to either a documentary format or a dramatic one. Yet, if he had gone with the former, effectively driving the story through a character's actions would have been nearly impossible ("Cloverfield" proved this) and, if he had done the latter, the film's best moments would never have come to be. Blomkamp, and his co-writer, Terri Tatchell, did not write a script that suited the type of film he wished to make. It results in a fractured film that is half brilliant and half decent, with each half being dragged down by the other.

What makes "District 9" so frustrating is not that it squanders an excellent premise, but that it is wildly successful, up until a certain point. Likewise, the action film that it transforms into is hardly bad, either; it is simply out of place. In short, "District 9" is two stilted films in one.

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