Hey! I can review first-run movies occasionally!
This past Friday, Mia was at school, and Norah was at pre-school for the entire day. The entire day!!!!! We want to get her ready for kindergarten, so we're sending her to pre-school for the whole day once a week. That means I had most of the entire day to myself (about 10.30 a.m. to 2.45 p.m.) and nothing to do, so I went to the movies! Yay!
I checked out District 9 because why not? It's a pretty good movie, and now I'll tell you why! Here's the story: In 1982, an alien spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. The humans went inside and found that the aliens were more like refugees, with no leaders and no organization. So the humans created a refugee camp for them (called District 9) and stuck them there, partitioning them off from the rest of the world. Now it's 2010, and the humans have had enough - the aliens are scheduled to be sent to a new camp, 200 kilometers away from Johannesburg. Into this mess comes Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat of MNU, the corporation in charge of the shantytown where the aliens - derisively called "prawns" because they look like seafood - live. Wikus is tasked with getting the prawns to sign a waiver agreeing to the move - this section of the movie is weirdly humorous, as it's such a bureaucratic thing to do, even when you're dealing with aliens who don't sign their names (luckily, Wikus understands their language). As he moves through District 9, he comes across a hut where there's a strange vial that squirts out some strange black liquid. Before you know it, Wikus is becoming a prawn himself, and MNU wants to experiment on him, and he's ostracized from society in the same way the prawns are. Oh, the irony!
The movie quickly goes from social allegory/satire to action movie, which presents some problems, but not enough to ruin the movie, unless you're really into seeing a social allegory. Obviously, the director, Neill Blomkamp (a South African himself, hence the setting of the movie), is going for the apartheid parallel, but he doesn't go far enough with it. First of all, he never mentions that this situation existed in South Africa in the first place, leading me to believe this is some parallel reality world where it didn't exist (in 1982, of course, apartheid was still in full effect, so somebody might have mentioned it). He also gives us stereotypical Nigerians as villains in the movie, which made me a bit uncomfortable. The white villains are evil, sure, but they're just regular people. The Nigerians, with their witchcraft and cult of personality around their leader, seem as or more subhuman than the prawns themselves, which is odd. It's a weird choice for Blomkamp to make and somewhat undermines his idea of tolerance that underlies the movie. Of course, he doesn't want to push the apartheid parallel all that much because he's making an action movie, but it's still a strange thing to put in the movie and then ignore. Perhaps it would have been better to set it somewhere else other than South Africa so that the parallel wouldn't have been so obvious.
The "mockumentary" style Blomkamp employs for some of the movie works against him, too. He starts the movie this way, but quickly abandons it for long stretches before intermittently using it again. It's the same thing as the apartheid subtext - embrace it completely or ditch it. It doesn't seem possible to tell this story in a "mockumentary" style, and so when he breaks with that, it heightens the "movie-ness" of it even more, drawing us out of the story. I get what he was trying to do with the "mockumentary" style, as it adds a immediacy and also a claustrophobia as Wikus's life unravels, but it feels affected because he doesn't use it throughout. Again, I doubt if he could use it throughout, so it probably should have been abandoned.
Of course, I still enjoyed the movie. It's not great science fiction, mainly because Blomkamp is too concerned with making an action movie, but it's a good action movie, with far more on its mind than most. He gets a great performance from Copley, who begins as a weasel and really doesn't do too much to redeem himself. Even as he begins to change, he doesn't sympathize with the prawns all that much, convincing himself that if he change back, his wife will take him back (she won't) and all will forgiven (it won't). When he's confronted with a moral choice about helping the aliens or helping himself, he helps himself. It's a nice character arc, actually, because we probably wouldn't believe that Wikus would change so quickly. When he finally comes down on the "right" side (and of course he does), it's not necessarily because he completely sees the light, but because he decides it's the only thing he can do. Copley is very good in the role, which is interesting given it's his first movie (indeed, his first acting job).
District 9 is R-rated, and it earns it. The language, according to the rating, is "pervasive," which is as good a description as any. It's also very violent, as Blomkamp, when he decides to make this a complete action movie, shows that he can really do action well. The violence is sudden and devastating and extremely graphic, just as a warning. It's also very quick, as Blomkamp doesn't linger on the horror, in case you're wondering. Despite the fact that the turn toward action is a bit disappointing, at least Blomkamp does it very well!
I wanted District 9 to be a masterpiece, but I'm not surprised it wasn't, as it was made by a bunch of people with very little movie experience. What it is, however, is a fine action movie disguised as a science fiction movie with a conscience, and it certainly makes you think more than other summer action movies do. It's very gripping and tense, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout ("We'll sell you the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge!!!!!!) and featuring some very fine performances. If there's any justice in the world, it portends big things for its star and its director. And it's a fine way to spend two hours during the dog days of summer!
And if you don't believe me, Nik has reviewed it too! You can trust Nik!