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Review: "District 9"

Friday, March 26, 2010 - - 0 Comments


Finally got around to watching District 9 yesterday.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  When it first came out it looked like a barely passable run-of-the-mill sci-fi picture.  Then the buzz started to build that it was actually a really good sci-fi movie.  Well, that's all fine and good but, c'mon, The Matrix is a good science-fiction movie, too, but you wouldn't expect it to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.  But District 9 was nominated.  The only thing I knew about the movie was that it was some sort of allegory for apartheid.  I'll be honest, the only things I knew about apartheid was that it had something to do with South Africa and, by extension, something to do with Nelson Mandela (maybe I should watch Invictus next).

So I'll start my review with that topic; I really don't think this movie makes a statement about apartheid at all, and, while I haven't read or seen any interviews with the filmmakers, I would be surprised if that was even their intent.  The film does take inspiration for its setting from the South African apartheid, in that it involves a segregated slum set up for aliens, and the attempts made to forcefully relocate them (yeah, I did some research).

However, that's really not the plot of the movie at all.  The real plot of the movie is about one man, Wikus van de Merwe (played by South African actor Sharlto Copley), who is put in charge of the relocation and accidentally becomes infected with a compound that slowly begins to turn him into one of the aliens (called "prawns", their real name is never revealed). The government and the Nigerian mafia want him because he can operate prawn weaponry, something that no other human can do because they are biologically locked to prawn physiology.  In the meantime, one of the prawns named Christopher (Jason Cope) is obsessed with repairing a small ship hidden under his District 9 shack so that he can return to the mothership hovering over Johannesburg and use it return to his home planet.

Now I don't know about you but that sounds like a pretty mundane plot and, essentially, it is.  Where the movie excels, though, is through the clever documentary style in which it was filmed and in the superb performance from Copley in the lead role.  Especially in the beginning of the movie, when the world is still being set up for us, the documentary style is very effective.  If you didn't know better, you'd almost think that an alien spacecraft really did arrive in South Africa in 1982 and the world just went on ticking for the last 27 years.  That's part of the genius of leaving the setting in Johannesburg; I'm sure the filmmakers had to have felt studio pressure to move the action to the United States but they were right to stick to their guns (District 9 is based on a short called "Alive in Johannesburg").  Even though in District 9, aliens have been on Earth for nearly 3 decades, the world outside of South Africa is unchanged (we assume, the movie never implies otherwise).  The aliens showed up but they were nothing but a ragtag group of refugees and their ship was dead.  So they got herded up in a camp and forgotten about.  It's great because it's obviously not reality but there's no reason that it couldn't be, given the circumstances.  I was really impressed with Sharlto Copley; he shows great acting chops and I'm anxious to see his turn as Murdoch in The A-Team movie.  I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of this guy soon.

So in the end, is it a good movie?  Is it worth the hype?  The answers are yes and no.  District 9 is a decent enough movie and deserves to sit on your DVD shelf beside Blade Runner, Star Wars, and, yes, even The Matrix.  But I don't think it's a great, epic, unforgettable movie but any means.  So why all the hype?  I blame overblown politic agendas.  Did anyone see South Park on Wednesday with "The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs"?  The same things that episode pointed out regarding "The Catcher in the Rye" and the aforementioned "Scrotie McBoogerballs" happened to District 9.  I think Hollywood wanted to think the movie was a huge statement on injustice and humanity and, honestly, its not.  But the fact that a science-fiction film got the attention that it did is good for the entire genre so you won't hear me complain.

If you haven't watched it yet, give it rent.  Post your comments below--I'd love to know what you thought.

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