Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9: The Rebirth of Smart Sci-Fi

Good Science Fiction almost always has something of value to say about society. Because Sci-Fi's subject matter is often fanciful and other-worldly it's the perfect vehicle to showcase very real social issues through metaphor. Recently, mainstream Sci-Fi has largely abandoned this practice, opting instead to wow audiences with special effects rather than with social commentary, and we're left with worthless garbage like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Fortunately, District 9 is here to save the day, providing both jaw dropping action AND the social commentary that makes Sci-Fi important and worthwhile.

Written and Directed by newcomer Niell Blomkamp and Produced by Peter Jackson, District 9 might be the most politically charged and socially significant film of the year. Blomkamp was slated to direct a Jackson produced live-action adaptation of the video game Halo, but when the studios killed the project Jackson helped him develop his own original idea. And things couldn't have worked out better. Halo would have been exactly the type of empty Sci-Fi/Action film that's been all too prevalent of late, and instead District 9 is just what the doctor ordered.

The film opens at a brisk pace and never slows down for a second. Shot mostly in a documentary style, complete with interviews and grainy news footage, the 20 year back story is quickly explained before seamlessly blending into the present day action. An alien spacecraft practically the size of a city, reminiscent of Independence Day, arrives over Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually humans fly up to it and take a look inside only to find the creatures inside weak, unorganized, and starving to death. Seemingly with good intentions, the aliens are taken from their mothership and placed in a camp called District 9 where they can be brought back to health. However, problems begin to mount as alien-human relations begin to go South and the rehabilitation camp becomes a locked down slum designed to keep the creatures separated from the rest of the city.

The setting of the story, South Africa, is significant in that the story seems to be an allegory of Apartheid. The aliens are given shacks for shelter and the means to survive, but they are segregated, discriminated against and exploited out of fear. But after all, they are, well... alien, and naturally don't interact well with humans. What they perceive as playful fun humans see as disruptive violence, and instead of making an effort to integrate them into society they are locked away and despised by the human majority. Under the guise of trying to help the creatures, an agency called MNU, sort for Multi-National United (whose trucks look more than a little bit like UN vehicles), are secretly trying to discover how to use alien weapon technology for their own gain, and all other ethical considerations are of no importance.

It is not an easy film to watch by any means. The violence is graphic, at times almost literally in your face, and there are several medically related scenes that make even the most jaded movie-goer a bit squeamish. Plus, it's actually about something. Unlike Transformers or Independence Day the political, moral, and ethical questions posed in the film make the experience all the more harrowing because the themes relate back to the real human experience. When the humans casually "abort" the eggs of the aliens it's almost impossible not to conjure images of ethnic cleansing. Violence is meaningless and ineffectual when there's no substance, message, or character development behind it, but here we truly feel empathy for the characters, both human and alien, when they are beaten, experimented on, or blown to bits.

Produced for only $30 million, District 9 will surely make a huge profit due to the buzz generated by its underground style marketing campaign, but audiences might not be prepared for what they're getting themselves into. More than a few people got up and left the theater within the first 30 minutes during the screening I attended. This film is unflinchingly brutal and is almost guaranteed to make you think and question your own set of moral values. Some people want to go the the theater only to be entertained, and while this movie doesn't lack spectacle and action, it's far from the mindless eye candy many have become accustomed to, which is a much needed change for the modern Sci-Fi genre.

District 9
(2009) 9/10

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