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Film on Fridays: Space Racism From Space!

August 14, 2009

Chances are, by now, you’re wondering what the hell the deal is with District 9. The trailers were cryptic, faux-documentary newsflashes that plunged viewers into the world of the movie without revealing any of the plot. It was a canny move, but a risky one – people were supposed to buy tickets to see a movie they didn’t know anything about, except that it involved aliens and probably symbolized apartheid. You can’t tell from watching the trailer whether District 9 will turn out to be a ham-handed message-fest, a two-hour Halo cutscene, or a thriller as savvy, original and resourceful as the promotion itself. Good news! It’s the third, and in fact, I’d almost recommend watching it with no more information than that.

District 9, along with 2006’s Children of Men, belongs to an emerging genre you could call refugeepunk, if you wanted to annoy people. Refugeepunk explores life in the third-world slums of the Not Too Distant Future. In the refugeepunk world, the massive slums that house billions of people today have spread even further and become even more unmanageable. Typically, refugeepunk features a militaristic government that has to fight viciously just to maintain what little space remains for the wealthier members of society. Refugeepunk has roots in dystopian movies like Soylent Green and Blade Runner, but it represents a distinctly 21st-century form of urbanization. There will probably be a few more refugeepunk movies over the next few years, but here the refugees are… aliens.

But are they... <i>gayliens?</i>

But are they... gayliens?

Aliens? Aliens! The aliens are freakin’ cool, rendered by seamless CGI into a form both human and inhuman, both familiar and disturbingly different. They speak a distinctive clicking language, with a subtle shift toward English when they address humans. They’ve landed in South Africa, they can’t leave, and humanity basically kicks them around trying to come up with a solution. MNU, a megacorp straight out of Science Fiction Central Plotting, tends to them in the absence of any other volunteers. Since the aliens have been causing riots in the crowded Johannesburg neighborhood where they live, MNU decides to move them to a dedicated refugee camp miles away. To head the project, they appoint Sharlto Copley as a bureaucrat very similar to Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil. This being the movies, his life turns to crap almost as quickly.

The movie’s near-flawless first act is supposed to be a documentary of MNU’s attempt to evict the aliens. Blomkampf uses the documentary conceit well, stitching together news footage, security-camera footage, and footage made by in-story documentarians, changing production values accordingly. He has the sheer cheek to show us a CGI alien mothership the way it would actually look through the lens of a news camera a few miles away, first modeling it meticulously and then degrading it for our consumption. This attention to realism at the expense of sheen shows up all over the film — in a movie mostly marketed to Americans, everyone speaks in a thick South African accent, to the point where some English-speakers end up subtitled.

chill bro

"Just chill, bro"

The documentary scenes show Copley trying to serve proper eviction notices to every alien in District 9. His commitment to process in a chaotic situation starts out as dark comedy, then it becomes horrifying when we start to see the violence behind it. The aliens are menacing enough, but the man-is-the-real-monster moments are physically hard to watch. The terrifying part is the casual, almost joking attitude with which the humans do their work. Why worry about hurting the aliens, when after all they’re not even human? These scenes aren’t just great, they’re new. They make emotional points that the movies have never made before. But then Copley gets infected with alien mojo, the documentary format breaks, and the movie gets kind of lame.

See, now Copley’s running from the MNU, the aliens, and some Nigerian thugs, while trying to get an alien MacGuffin that will help the aliens go home! A bunch of shit blows up! Everyone’s fighting for the Little Alien Plot Token! Wow-ee! Blomkampf still works some drama into the suspense before, and the reflection after, each action scene. But suspense and reflection both disappear as the movie dissolves into a mindless splatterfest. In a more stylized movie, say a Ritchie or a Tarantino movie, mindless splattering is art unto itself, but here Blomkampf spent half the movie setting up violence as a shocking act, something to avoid at all costs. By an hour or so into the movie, you start to wonder if you’re not watching a Halo cutscene after all. Toward the end, the documentary form returns and the quality picks up a little, but it’s too little too late.

So, District 9: intelligent, suspenseful, thrilling, original, but it partly betrays the promise contained in its first few scenes. If you want to see an action movie, and don’t mind being a little disappointed and a little grossed out, this might be your single best choice in 2009. In conclusion, please start using the word “refugeepunk,” because it’s really very clever. Refugeepunk!

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