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District 9 (2009)

by on 2012/01/09


“He took the choices that were given to him.”

* * * *

When I saw District 9 this time, I was reminded of Sin City, not for any shared content or style, but for my changes in reaction. I saw both in the theatres during their original releases, and neither of them impressed me very much. Now, retrospectively, I can see what I vaguely suspected, they were both extremely unsettling, and nearly peerless in their craft.

Perhaps, like the citizens of 1982’s Johannesburg, I expected Steven Spielberg’s “music from heaven and bright shining lights”. Instead we get a million ailing refugees, insectile aliens confined in a shantytown, the title’s District 9. We learn of the social controversy through a documentary structure, describing the fictional history to this point.

About thirty years later, private security firm Multi-National United (MNU) is tasked with moving the “invaders” two hundred kilometers away, believing segregation will undo the societal ills they are blamed for. Some in the media, however, have noted the firm also happens to be one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers.

No such things are of any concern to Wikus Van De Merwe (The A-Team’s Sharlto Copley), a simple-minded fall guy assigned to head up MNU’s Alien Affairs. He affects a positive swagger, and demonstrates rare sweetness, and yet he’s also profoundly ignorant, often dangerously so. He’s a white-collar desk jockey out of his depth, manifesting the best and worst of human frailty.

We know from the earliest moments’ narration he becomes involved in terrible doings, which keeps us hanging on to find out what. Ostensibly, District seems to be Close Encounters of the Apartheid. In truth, the issues are largely setting the scene for the journey of one man. We don’t learn much more of “Joburg” itself, nor the visitors’ past and future, but we follow the evolution of Van De Merwe.

At the time this movie was originally shown, Copley was little-known, as were all the rest of the players cast. An absence of distracting stars works well to support the conceit of a documentary looking back in time. Our belief is further suspended by director Neill Blomkamp’s approach, a gritty realism achieved through a pastiche of varied styles. We get the usual “objective” filmmaking, here seasoned throughout with interviews, reportage, news broadcasts, propaganda pieces, time-stamped and split-screened surveillance footage, and flashes of iconography.

While less nauseating than some viewers found the Bourne series, the grainy, handheld tactic convincingly suggests a chaotic reality, as well as blurring the lines between verite and visual effects. As in Cloverfield, the roughness helps us accept non-human artifice.

Come to that matter, I was especially pleased with a fairly simple achievement: human and creature eye lines always matched. It’s disconcerting how rarely this alignment happens, and how distracting the failure can be, like noticing characters speaking out of synch.

Which is sort of representative of the experience overall; it’s a multitude of fine details, adding up to a greater whole. A decent story, a terrific performance, and a truly compelling framework unify to create a successful science fiction. Its political subtext only deepens its appeal.

So although District 9 once nearly lost me for its effectiveness, today it won me over for exactly the same reason.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

112 minutes

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