Monday, February 22, 2010

District 9: A Ladybrain Review

In the months before District 9 was released, movie-goers puzzled over signs indicating certain restrooms and theaters were restricted to human use only. This sort of grassroots publicity earned attention that turned into feverish word of mouth once the film was released late last summer amid solid box office performance and overwhelmingly positive reviews.

District 9 enjoyed such success because it is unlike any film audiences have ever seen. Although it made headlines for Peter Jackson's involvement in the special effects, this film stands on its own, as a commentary on apartheid and a damn good story.

Born from Neil Bloomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg, District 9 takes us back to 1982 Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien ship hovers over the city, unable to move, presumably because of a part that went missing when they arrived on Earth. After offloading the sick and leaderless aliens--who look like large, creepy grasshoppers--the government hires a private military organization, Multinational United or MNU, to manage the refugees into camps, which quickly become slums.

As South Africa's human residents become more disgusted and afraid of the aliens, which they derogatorily call "prawns," they begin the process of a forced evacuation to move the residents of District 9 farther away from the humans, to District 10. Enter Wikus van der Mewe, a bumbling MNU employee who is in charge of serving the aliens their eviction notices. His venture into District 9 reveals the horrific conditions in which the aliens live, and how cruelly and violently they are treated by the MNU. Wikus, upon entering an alien's home, accidentally finds and sprays an alien fluid in his face, which causes a chain reaction that forces Wikus to empathize with and help the aliens that the humans so despise.

To tell this gritty story, Bloomkamp expertly melds documentary-style camerawork with alien and spaceship special effects, creating a much more realistic and gritty look than anything Avatar could have hoped to accomplish. After seeing Avatar, you would never turn a corner and expect to see a big blue Na'vi, but District 9 makes you forget that these creatures don't actually exist on Earth.

Adding to this on-the-ground style is the excellent, but relatively unknown, South African cast, whose performances within the narrative are edited in with documentary-style interviews with historians, experts and MNU employees, all telling the story of this alternate-history looking back at the events, evidence and rumors.

Some will compare this film to Avatar not just because of special effects and aliens, but also as an example of a white savior theme, but this ladybrain disagrees. The first difference between a film like Avatar (which, in turn, shares themes with countless other native-white-savior-stories) and District 9 is, first, that the aliens aren't the native peoples in this narrative, they're very literally alien on Earth, and they crashed our party, so to speak. But the aliens do represent black South Africans, and in that respect they do take the role of the native people of South Africa, standing up against the white Europeans who colonized the country. And although Wikus does play a white savior role to the aliens, as Annalee Newitz points out, it's not out of the goodness of his heart. He has a selfish reason. In that way, he's much more of an anti-hero than Avatar's Sully and the like.

And in the end, the alien dubbed Christopher Johnson and his son play just as much a role as saviors as Wikus, moreso if the saved are the aliens. And although Wikus does save Johnson from the MNU, ultimately his fellow aliens then save Wikus from a particularly nasty MNU mercenary. In many ways, they are their own saviors, since Wikus' arrival in District 9 created the problem of the missing powerful fluid, which Wikus then had to fix. If you take Wikus out of the equation, the aliens wouldn't have needed saving at all. Thus, he's they're homme fatale (French for man, yes?) in one sense and their rectifier in another.

The only completely indefensible race issue in District 9, though, is the matter of the bizarre, vicious gang that lives among the aliens, identified as Nigerians. Identifying these evil-doers as specifically Nigerian especially given the considerable geographic distance between South Africa and Nigeria, made this ladybrain wonder if there were racial conflicts between the two countries that most Americans weren't aware of. Rightly so, Nigerians were offended by the depiction and attempted to ban the film (not rightly so, according to this ladybrain's standards regarding censorship).

The bottom line: This is a really cool film, with a lot of historical allusions, interesting themes, action and heart. It's films like this that benefit most from the expanded number of Best Picture nominees, and it wouldn't dissapoint this ladybrain one bit if it took home the big honor.

Feminist grade: C

It fails the Bechdel test and features only one significant female character, Wikus' wife Tania, although the featured experts that are shown in interview format are a mix of men and women. But we give District 9 a C because it was co-written by a woman, Terri Tatchell, who along with Bloomkamp were nominated for Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Moviegoer grade: A

Hands down, one of the best films of the year. Netflix it immediately.

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