Friday, October 2, 2009

District Nine

Summer is over and, sadly, so is drive-in movie season. Our final trip to the ex-urbs to car camp in front of a big screen was one of the most cinematically rewarding we've ever taken. We're used to seeing bad movies at drive-ins and more frequently, mediocre ones. Occasionally a movie is married so perfectly to the setting that we remember it more fondly than it perhaps deserved (the first Fast and the Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean movies comes to mind). Low expectations usually help as does the low gate fee and total willingness on the part of drive-in employees to overlook take-out pizza boxes and coolers full of cold beer. But seeing District Nine at the drive-in recently was probably a once in a life time experience. Not only was this late-summer alien invasion movie perfectly placed on a drive-in screen, but it was also a remarkably good film and far away the best science fiction movie I've seen in years.

Though it's been marketed simply as an edgy escapist effects picture produced by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), it's a far darker and more disturbing film than has yet been seen in the genre of "sci-fi horror." While the summer started with Watchmen and its downbeat, angst-ridden and blood spattered antics, it ends with this deeply critical science fiction allegory that does a far more effective job of exposing the rotting underbelly of "human nature" then Watchmen managed, despite that blockbuster's faithfulness to its source material. Skewering racism, corporate contract military operations, greed, opportunism and even office politics, District Nine finds little worth redeeming in our species and its treatment of an Apartheid era ghetto full of aliens. It's hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a South African Michael Scott, an ineffectual middle-manager who has married out of his league and landed the bosses daughter. Wikus' obsessive devotion to his wife is probably his only likeable characteristic, though as the film progresses and he mutates into one of the creatures he's spent his professional life bullying, degrading, murdering and I would say dehumanizing, but that's not quite right--he does become, ironically more humane. He is paired with one of aliens, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and together they work together to break into the headquarters of the multinational that is running the operations against the aliens.

While Battlestar Galactica has taken on some of these themes and has done so by making villains less cardboard than the white racists and black gangsters in District Nine, it had years of screen time to do so. District Nine borrows Battlestar Galactica's cinema verite style, adding some texture with mockumentary interviews of fake experts and talking heads. Sometimes these textures slow down the pace of the plot and one becomes relieved when they eventually disappear about mid-way through the movie. The other sci-fi sources for District Nine are The Fly and it's Kafkaesque metapmorphisis; the first Alien film with it's under-current of anti-corporate sentiment; the orignal Battlestar Galactica which had an episode about one of the show's heroes being stranded with a cylon whom he was forced to work with to escape from the planet, a plot which was borrowed for several Star Trek episodes and a feature film (Enemy Mine) as well as an episode in the re-imagined series which literally fused the alien technology with biology as District Nine does. The X-files and ET first imagined that if we found aliens the government would seize them for medical experiments as District Nine asserts as well.

The deepest source for this deeply distopic vision of mankind is probably our cable news culture which can expose the systematic cruelty and destruction of a race and seemingly do nothing to prevent it. This camera-awareness permeates the film. Wikus is constantly asking that some embarrassing or potentially libelous moment be edited out from the final cut. I've seen several reviews that imply that film is merely critical of Apartheid, which of course it is. It is also critical of present day South Africa and really the entire way in which refugees are handled in the world and the way war is now prosecuted with an insincere smiles accompanying jack-booted thuggery. This could be Iraq or any other place where a powerful military presence is on the honor system in dealing with a large civilian population.