Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, and Jason Cope

District 9 is an example of what happens when science fiction is used to both entertain and educate an audience. The film never fails to deliver on "wow" moments and at the same time makes a rather profound statement on racial discrimination and segregation. The film is directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, who is from South Africa and used his experiences with Apartheid as an influence for this story about aliens who have no place in our world.

From the opening scene the audience is immersed into the world of District 9. One of the ways Blomkamp is able to make the world seem so real is by how he wants us to react to the aliens on screen. They are suppose to be accepted as a fact of life in the world he created. He achieves this feeling of normalcy by employing a few techniques. The first of which is that the actors on screen are never once in awe of the aliens. Nearly every interaction a human has with an alien is depicted as a regular part of daily life. JJ Abrams did the same thing in Star Trek. There is something disarming about this technique that I really enjoy. It keeps me from being distracted by cheap special effect thrills and keeps me focused on the story.

When humans discover something new about the aliens, usually concerning their technology, there is a sense of awe. That sense of awe is communicated by the character's reactions and felt by the audience.

The film is presented in a mockumentary fashion; it combines a traditional narrative storytelling style with that of a documentary. The title of the film refers to a section of government housing that is home to a race of aliens known as "prawns." This is a derogatory as it infers that the aliens are more like insects than anything else. We are told that the aliens arrived to Earth twenty years ago and since that time humanity has grown tired of them. The excitement of the discovery of an alien life form soon gave away to annoyance when it was discovered they were nothing more than refugees. Somehow their ship was disabled and now they can't leave the planet. This information is told to us through talking heads during on camera interviews. The documentary style allows the filmmakers to give the audience all the necessary background of "district 9."

This mockumentary style adds to the authenticity of the world that Blomkamp created. Because the information is given as a "history" it sort of tricks the audience into taking the film as fact. Now, obviously nobody should come out of this film feeling like it was an authentic documentary, but it certainly feels like an authentic documentary. I mean to be honest, it's not that different from the filmmaking style of Michael Moore. You tell a story by claiming people are experts and then you cut the footage to make it feel like fact. During that process it begins to resemble reality.

The documentary footage prepares us for the story that is told in this film. The story begins when we are introduced to a young and inexperienced government worker named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who has been given the task of relocating all the aliens to new government housing. During this assignment he comes into contact with an alien substance that changes his life forever. He is forced to seek the aid of an alien referred to as Christopher Johnson.

Blomkamp is also a director that knows how to use special effects and it is so refreshing. There are actual set pieces in this film that get crushed and destroyed. All of the aliens in this film are computer generated. Despite that fact they all seems so authentic. They interact flawlessly with the humans. It has become so easy for filmmakers to rely on special effects that in many cases they fail to impress. Here is a filmmaker who is using effects to enhance the story rather than telling it for him.

I feel like filmmakers are constantly taking their audiences for granted. It's almost like they feel like they don't have to earn the time, money, or emotional investment that we put into a film. Blomkamp is giving the audience a great story, with strong social themes, and moving characters; as well as some awe inspiring moments along the way. This film is smart, entertaining, and in some respects, challenging.

There are so many things that I admire about this film. First of all, it is so refreshing to see that there is somebody out there willing to take a chance on a new and original idea. Peter Jackson is the producer of this film and he was the one who was willing to take such a chance. Upon reading about how it came to be I discovered that it started because of a planned adaptation of the popular "Halo" video game series. Blomkamp had made short films to promote a new installment of the series and later, when Jackson was preparing to make a feature film, he tapped Blomkamp to direct it. Complications with the studios involved resulted in the plans for the film to fall apart and Jackson reportedly gave Blomkamp $30 million and told him to go make whatever he wanted. I sincerely hope that this inspires studio heads every where to take risks. Still, a great behind the story of a film's production does not make for a great film.

Everything else about District 9 makes it a great film.

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