Sunday, September 13, 2009

DISTRICT 9: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: A very interesting parable, but it could have been a story. Ultimately the bleakest summer blockbuster in a long time. And disappointing tonal gradations.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller

        District 9 is probably the bleakest summer blockbuster I might have seen in some time. Maybe a long time. This is an overwhelmingly scathing statement on us, often even resorting to stereotypes just to make its point. That we are, by our very nature, capable of monstrosity time and again. If good and evil really existed, we sure as hell would all be members of the former, but we all would have season membership passes into the latter. It might be easy to argue against some of the shorthand Mr. Blomkamp uses to make his statements, but it might be tough to argue against the historical events he seems to be suggesting as the basis of his outlook.
        You see Schindler’s List might be a fine film when considered as some TV soap with a super emotional payoff at the end, but it is not for sure in any way a profound work of art. Because, I believe, it is kitschy and doesn’t understand the very basis of what caused the Holocaust, and instead tries to condemn it as everybody with a two-bit understanding of the historical event does. The Holocaust wasn’t an aberration, it wasn’t a one-time inexplicable turn of events. It was a failure of most colossal kind, yes, but by no means was it some kind of incomprehensible immoral act committed by men with incomprehensible evil within them. The real Amon Goethes weren’t all-black aliens, as Schindler’s List paints them. They were men like you, and like me. What caused the Holocaust was what caused Slavery, was what caused Apartheid, was what caused Rwanda, was what caused Imperialist exploitation, was what caused Gujarat. And will what cause the next such thing. It is not a question of good or bad, I think. Maybe, it is a question of our very nature being hard-wired in that manner. You and I are not bad people, but when together, under a cloud of collective morality, we are capable of a lot of stuff. The Reader is profound, you see.
        This complete failure of civilization is what is at heart of District 9, a film that doesn’t seem to pose profound questions as much as it seems to make easy and sweeping judgmental answers in the form of disdainful remarks upon our nature. It was 1990 and an alien ship somehow ended up getting stuck in our atmosphere. Not over Manhattan as Hollywood has forced us to fantasize over the past decade, but over Johannesburg. The ship hung there in air for three months before South African authorities geared up for first contact. They barged in, only to discover hundreds and thousands of malnourished aliens cowering inside the darkness. The world was looking, just as the world looks on every time, eyes overflowing with kitsch dressed up as humanity, and the authorities had nowhere to go but to provide sanctuary and food to the aliens. First they were allowed to mix with the human population, but riots ensued. The area was soon cordoned off, they were not allowed to roam near human population, and it soon became District 9, a slum with the most pathetic living conditions, and inhabitants who in the absence of a leader were just a bunch of individuals who couldn’t take care of themselves. And the inhabitants were branded rather derogatorily as prawns.
        I will spare the other details, much of what has been built as a sci-fi tale, and is in fact a very thin parable to all the socio-political offshoots of such an event. With Africa in mind. There are Nigerian gangsters, there are private military organizations, there is witchery and there is discrimination. There is apartheid, and there is AIDS. There is the white man’s guilt. There’re slight chuckles in the way the aliens and Negroes are subtitled, even though the latter speak comprehensible English. There’s the bureaucratic butchery, and the clumsiness they always seem to manage. And there’s science and secret experiments.
        And there’s Wikus van der Merwe (Mr. Copley), a somewhat puny deskman whose father-in-law is in-charge of M.N.U, and who is given the responsibility to relocate the aliens out of Johannesburg after 20 years of illegal stay. He visits District 9, with the private army, and serves eviction notices to all of them, and even manages to burn down a hut that has several eggs hatching. And then, a terrible accident occurs, and Wikus, well, has his very life and his very survival hanging in balance.
        This fascinates me, Wikus’ predicament that is, which you might have guessed by now if you are good enough to have reached here in this passage. It is not merely a plot point, but a vital thread to the film’s bleak outlook. You see, what it suggests is, mankind, as a general rule, isn’t made of superheroes. Oskar Schindler might have been real, and so was Paul Rusesabagina, probably, but things on ground aren’t exactly that black and white. We are driven by survival, we are survivors. I think we all have cracked that wise line on the father of the nation, which I really do not want to repeat. And District 9, and Mr. Blomkamp are wise, not to resort to melodrama, but instead be unflinchingly and relentless brutal in their depiction of our morality. Or the absence of it. There are harmless eggs which Wikus orders to burn. Yet he shows moral concern when he is asked to shoot an alien with their weapons. You might wonder why? You might also wonder if the predicament is purely physical in nature, or has it breached the soul as well.
        There is so much happening in District 9, and all of it is dense. Confusing dense. I mean that as a compliment. That is because although the film is densely packed with social commentary, it still works brilliantly as a standalone story, stripped off all its allegories. The film uses convenience a lot, from furthering its effect to furthering its arguments. There is the documentary approach, which is actually pretty effective in dismissing the fantasy feel that is home to every science-fiction of recent times, and instead reigns in a texture that feels real and tangible. The aliens are not super-humans either. It is all very convincing, and that is its strength and its weakness. That is because the film is not in anyway a straight documentary either. There is no one single perspective. One moment it is a documentary, the other moment it is newsreel footage and the next it is inside information. It is jarring, and disappointing. Why did Mr. Blomkamp feel the need to have this inconsistency, I do not know. But I do know it gives him convenience to create a blockbuster that basically doesn’t ever ask us to explore the story, which is handed on a platter, and we in turn only have to gather the themes in question. I don’t particularly approve of that kind of filmmaking, where integrity of perspective is discarded for trivial issues. The greatest of science-fictions work because they are brilliant work of narratives first, and the themes surface only when we try and skin the plot. The Prestige is such a wonderful example, and so is Minority Report. Here we do not so much have to understand and feel the themes as much as we have to connect them. I wonder how fascinating it all would have been if we didn’t have any inside information, and District 9 was stripped and constructed entirely as a documentary. No extra information whatsoever.
        But then, this is still very interesting. Just because of the tone it takes. I have heard comments that criticize the film’s third act, but any other suggested way would have basically caused an act of betrayal. You see, a film that is so disdainful of mankind would consciously suggest that we are only worthy of an ending that contains a shootout. What else are we capable of? Kubrick said the same in Dr. Strangelove. That is what satires do, and mind you, District 9 is a satire. When in danger, economic or otherwise, we resort to war, the film seems to suggest. A movie that consciously creates two-bit caricatures would obviously end in a wham-bam vein. At least the idea is right. Schindler’s List suggests it was them who committed holocaust. District 9 at least seems to suggest it was we who are racially biased. The Nazis were us, always. In that, District 9 tends towards a greatness that the Spielberg movie absolutely doesn’t. I say tends because Mr. Blomkamp doesn’t manage the courage to go all the way, and instead chooses to sentimentalize the final moments, which utterly spoils the game. As I said, the tonal gradations are a terrible issue.
        And what’s more, the movie might have just tapped into what the real weapon against mankind. And who is the real victor at the end of the film – us or the aliens. The ultimate distressing fact is that District 9 hands out the win to them. How? By giving them the very weapon we used to consolidate our superiority – proliferation. That is a first in the alien-adventure genre, where we don’t win. Within 30,000 years we have managed to be 6 billion or something. That is how we captured this planet, not by guns and ammunition, but by our voracious proliferation. When the aliens arrived in 90, they were a few thousand at best. And within a span of two decades their population has exploded to 2.5 million. That is what the film’s final line says. That means they have been approved by Darwin and his apes, and I can’t help but feel that this is our weapon turned against us, alien style.

3 comments:

Perx said...

u know i just watched this movie tonight.. and i was gonna post a comment on ur blog, asking if u had seen it.. cuz u had not posted for so long.. and here u r with the review...

Perx said...

i guess i'm really illiterate.. movies wise.. cuz i extremely liked this one too..

just another film buff said...

Satish,

I think that we are never interested in the human vs alien conflict as much as we are in affirming our moral prism. It is always good vs bad for us. You see, the aliens in D9 are the Jews of the Holocaust and the humans are the Nazis. The issue is still as one dimensional as Schindler's List. By the virtue of our morals we tend to patronize the weak and the oppressed. We never see ourselves as one of the human species of D9. We see them as baddies and THEM only. And that's because we have a good side in the film - the poor, weak, innocent human-like Aliens. What I'm trying to say is that D9 does not make us see our own dark side, but merely shifts our sympathy towards a side that still, at heart, consists of humans.

For us, everything is human - Nemo is human, ET is human, King Kong is human. Pop cinema can never conceive an alien that does not resemble humans (and that's one of the reasons I consider HAL the greatest movie character). It is our "anthropophilic" tendency that we tend to accept the aliens as victors. Had the aliens been inanimate objects or made to look like chairs or even trees, the ending of D9 would have made us hostile. True that evolution may have favoured human like species on other planets too, but the blame is also on us for placing these creatures on our moral and physical scales. If there is a sequel to D9 where the aliens attack us, I believe that the movie will never let the aliens win. It will be some sort of peace treaty where both co exist peacefully or some junk like that, thanks to our morality.

I believe D9 has just taken the regular B-Grade Sci-fi plot and reversed alien and human roles. But where it scores is in the Wikus character. He is not some human rights advocator or some truly good human being who champions the rights of the aliens, as the regular Holly flick would have us believe. His decision to help Christopher is purely selfish - to conform to the safety of the mass mentality. That's also why I believe the third act was dishonest and fake genre cliche.

But why I really liked about D9 was t that it takes our nature to divide and join hands to the next level, which is highly likely. We humans always tend to take sides. When it's an International match, we root for our country. When its national, we supoport our state. State-district. District-City... Neighbourhood-Family, Family-Me. And it works the other way too. So it seems likely that the only way humans can patch up among themselves is when the threat is larger than life - aliens in this case (This is a reason why I like Shyamalan's Signs). Although other movies have touched upon this, D9 has the chutzpah to be tongue in cheek about it and actually, show us the aliens instead of going round about it.

As for the style of the film, I was first suspicious of the docu style of the film. I mean, it looked like a logical flaw. If aliens settlement is a common fact, whom are the guys narrating the history for. I started to feel that this was just a trick to establish the scenario, instead of having Bladerunner-like text on screen. But then, I got used to it and even laughed along with it.

All sauid, D9 still makes for some eye popping summer watch without being completely empty.