Saturday, August 15, 2009

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies: District 9

The entire audience I saw District 9 with removed our jaws from the floor. What an extraordinary, thoughtful science fiction picture. I would say it's the best science fiction film since Blade Runner.

The thing that is so extraordinary about District 9 is that it is not predictable, and you can't predict where it is going, and your feelings about characters change from moment to moment.

Take for instance, the introduction, where we hear about the arrival of the "prawn" aliens to Johannesburg. The aliens are physically revolting, malnourished, believed to carry disease. They are (with respect to Victor Hugo) Les Miserables. There's a point at which pity transforms into disgust, particularly when we see the aliens start riots in JHB, eat cat food (a delicacy to them), and root through peoples' trash. I started to be as physically revolted as the people of Johannesburg, who want the aliens far, far from them. I started to mentally imagine what it would be like if one of these prawn creatures moved next door to me, and I will say, I was revolted.

People are tired of the proximity of District 9, the walled off alien slum, and it's easy to understand helps at a visceral level, these things are just plain gross: they are deliberately designed to be distasteful to be around, a combination of an insect and a shrimp. The movie does a good enough job that despite our liberal, humanitarian instincts we see pictures like the above picture with suspicion and as near laughable examples of useless idealism that doesn't solve real problems. I suppose that must be how racists and reactionaries see "multicultural" and "can't we just get along" types...a very disturbing comparison the movie doesn't let us forget.

We are then introduced to our hero, a white South African that works with the mercenary and arms dealing corporation (MNU) that is working to evict the aliens from JHB into another slum, District 10, 200 miles away. Van de Merve is an over-eager, perky and loathesome desk jobber you instantly hate: he got his job because he's married to the boss's daughter. While we have no love for the prawns at this point, he comes off as infuriating and patronizing, "talking down" to the aliens, and exploitatively getting them to sign the Eviction notices that would make MNU's mercenary transplantation to District 10 "legal."

I should mention at this point that this review has some spoilers, but it's necessary to do so for descriptive purposes that others can understand exactly why I was so impressed with this movie.

We also learn that part of the reason that the MNU has such an interest in District 9 is because of the alien weaponry, which they want to exploit as it is both high-tech and unusable to humans. Apparently the reason that the aliens don't often use the weapons to protect themselves is because (and this is barely touched on but important) it is speculated the majority of the aliens are members of a "worker-class" that are lost without a leadership, which may explain their malaise. While raiding the slum den of a particularly intelligent-looking mantis (named by the humans "Christopher Johnson") and his young son, van de Merve is exposed to a strange alien liquid which Christopher Johnson had been collecting for over 20 years in the trash and landfills that make up the area.

Van de Merwe starts to transform into a prawn, and because of his transformation it is noted he can use alien weaponry. Being the truly greedy corporation that they are, the MNU immediately sets to work on killing van de Merwe, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Van de Merwe escapes, and hides in District 9.

All the while, you're thinking, "ha ha, van de Merwe, you sure got yours, didn't you? Somehow the fact you're 'punished' like this is poetic justice."

That feeling instantly changes when the friendless van de Merwe, rejected by his wife, comes to District 9 and hides in a slum shack with a rotting cardboard box as a cover. Suddenly your feelings turn from distaste to pity, and this is not the last time the movie makes us change our mind about characters. There's more to come, of course.

Van de Merwe hides out in the very shack of Christopher Johnson, who immediately understands why the human is changing: he was exposed to the chemical, which Christopher needs to return his race home.

What was effective about this film was how utterly it reverses our earlier view of the "prawns" as monsters with the character of Christopher Johnson. Sensitive, intellectual, and with a young son that wants to go home, he emerges as the most sympathetic character in the film. It was amazing to see this happen, because instead of the Prawns being monsters, surprise! They're people like us, with a family.

One of the great dangers of adventure movies is, it's possible to fixate so totally on action and adventure stunts, that you forget that part of what makes them work is not the hero being in peril, but the fact that we like the hero so much that we actually care whether or not he lives or dies. It is this sense of something being at stake that makes our hero's peril truly alarming and involving.

My blog's regular reader and commenter, David Morefield, once did a routine on why Errol Flynn's movies were so fantastic, and as evidence, he points to his dramatic fight sequences, skillfully done by a great athlete and choreographer. Now, I do agree that Flynn's fight in the Sea Hawk is dramatic, but all the great choreography and fencing skill in the world won't matter if we don't actually care enough about the hero that we feel there's something at stake if he loses.

In Errol Flynn's defense, he usually played his characters with enough likeability and his great personal charisma and style that we did indeed care what happened to his character. But that's the trouble with a lot of action-adventure movies: so much is focused on delivering great exciting stunt pieces and fight scenes that it is sometimes easy to confuse their entertaining flash and style with what really makes them exciting: the sensation of experiencing real emotions when the hero is in peril and the relief of knowing whether he will survive.

Despite the fact Raiders of the Lost Ark had the most exciting scenes ever captured on film, none of it would have mattered if we didn't have an emotional investment in the likeable and unique character of Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., because otherwise we'd just be looking at the pictures instead of involved.

What makes District 9 extraordinary is, it isn't an escapist film, so there isn't the guarantee that our characters will survive or that there will even be a happy ending, which heightened every emotion. This is what, at times, makes "dark" movies so much more emotionally challenging in a way "light, escapist" movies aren't: because the outcome is necessarily in doubt, we the reader are that much more involved in seeing our hero win. When I started watching District 9, I had a feeling that it was the sort of movie that wouldn't have a happy ending, so for that reason I was very anxious and totally interested.

I am a big fan of adventure stories, superhero comics, and yes, even dramatic battle sequences, which sounds very much at odds with my insistence on believeable characters, realism, and the necessity of a sense of peril. But I don't see it that way at all. If anything, it is even more important for genre action and adventure films to do this. People throw around talk of "believeable" characters all the time but often forget why it is so important to have them: if we don't like them and believe in them, we don't care what happens, and consequently the movie is less engrossing.

I apologize for going on that tangent, but I think it was a spectacular element of District 9: we actually cared about the characters and there was a very real sense of peril. The story gave us stakes, and made us emotionally invested. I cared about what happened to Christopher Johnson, and when it looked like he might die (a real possibility at many points) I was literally at the edge of my seat cheering he'd make it through, and when I say "cheering" I mean it quite literally...and I wasn't alone.

First, we see Christopher Johnson's son looking at a globe of their home planet, and wondering wistfully what it must be like there. The little guy is cute, and we like him right away: when he sees van der Merve and his alien arm, he sets it side by side with his own and says, "we're the same!" When the chemical is taken and it looks like the aliens won't go home, the Dad is crushed to tell his son they won't see their home planet again, and rather, they point to one tent in the District 10 brochure and say, "if we're lucky, that one may be ours."

Your heart breaks. Suddenly the matter of getting the aliens off the earth becomes a matter of real desperation.

The goals of the heroes converge, as on the ship, Christopher Johnson can make van de Werke fully human again, so he can see his wife. Stealing some alien weapons, the pair go after the chemical.

Now, this is one thing I love about this movie: despite the fact it has an action sequence, there's a reason the action scene takes place and we the reader care about the outcome. That's a problem with a lot of movies that gratuitously use action scenes. I never understood why the chase scene with the Bat-Tank wasn't cut from Batman Begins, since all Batman needed to do was to have some antidote on his person to give to Rachel; the whole scene was gratuitous. Likewise, in the 2008 Hulk, it was never entirely clear to me exactly why the Hulk and the Abomination were exactly fighting about. This is what I mean when I say there is no distinction between being a fan of adventure and action and insisting on traditional storytelling values like characterization. In this film, we know exactly why Christopher Johnson and van der Merve are attacking MNU research offices.

As soon as the two return to District 9, they are immediately hunted by MNU's mercenaries. Suddenly our feeling changes on the human characters. The MNU becomes villainous, but an entirely human kind of villainy: they're dirty, ruthless men of the kind entirely believably capable of violence, who enjoy their jobs "killing prawns" sadistically, and who in general are greedy brutes capable of violence. Likewise, we also learn that Nigerian gangsters are also in District 9, brutally exploiting the prawns. They are evil in all-too-human and tragic way: the superstitious belief that if they eat prawn body parts they get their spirit inside them and get their powers. You really, really get involved in the film and boo and hiss the baddies. You feel like shouting at the Nigerian gangster, "you stupid, stupid superstitious brute, it doesn't work that way! Nothing will happen if you eat van der Merwe's body!"

This was another part of the film I liked: the way it makes humans into the heavies for tragically all-too-human reasons: greed, bloodlust and superstition. I really, really dislike movies featuring alien invasions, because they're all about our fear of the Other, or People Not Like Us. It at times frustrating to find people that dislike things like pure politics in their escapism, as in "I don't think we should trouble ourselves about seeing political and other issues in movies, I go to them for escapism."

This attitude frustrates me because, like I've said before, built in assumptions and attitudes ("politics") are a part of fiction, even escapist fiction, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Like I said, alien invasion films, even escapist ones, are based on an anxiety that I don't think come from admirable instincts.

What's even more extraordinary is, District 9 first presented the prawns to us as disgusting bottom-feeders, and then so totally reverses our expectations and gets us to root for them over the human race. If the aliens had been presented as likeable first (and perhaps something cute or cuddly), it wouldn't have been as thoughtful a film and invite us to challenge our assumptions.

When van de Merwe learns that Christopher Johnson can't come back for three years to cure him after he activates the ship, the naturally panics and steals the ship's command module, all with Christopher's son inside. Van de Merwe lies to his son, and tells him his father will soon be coming while he takes the ship. This was an interesting reversal, because we had just gotten accustomed to liking the previously jerky van de Merwe. When he steals the command ship, Christopher Johnson is captured by mercenaries, and van der Merwe gets the command ship - the very thing necessary to the aliens to return home, is shot down by his actions. It is quite literally the darkest part of the film.

If I could digress from the summary one final time, I find it interesting, very interesting, that the alien technology, while advanced, is still vulnerable to human weaponry. The command ship is downed by artillery, for instance, which makes us very anxious.

(On a related note, I find it a great tribute to reality that in a floating city, there is ground-to-air artillery and even attack aircraft. If there wasn't, it would reaaaaally strain disbelief.)

Finally, in the darkest moment, when Christopher is about to die, van de Merwe runs away from the dangerous mercenaries with gunfire. This is a totally realistic thing to do for a pencil-pusher desk jockey like van de Merwe. But to everyone's surprise, he returns to save Christopher and his son, along with the aliens' dream to return home.

This was really the high point of the film, because up until then, while we didn't dislike van de Merwe after we were filled with pity for him, nonetheless he was driven by entirely sympathetic but ultimately selfish motives, the desire to become human and see his wife again, and nonetheless had trouble acknowledging the prawn as "human." When he goes back, we see the character as totally different: someone that changed from the start of the story to the end, and ultimately became a "bigger" person. It was very impressive.

I won't say how the film ends, but the thing I liked about the ending was that it had a degree of ambiguity. In fact, the ambiguity is a little maddening for the same reason feelings of suspense or mystery are maddening. I stayed in my chair like my booty had superglue and watched the credits hoping for more.

Like I said, District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of the past thirty years. I'd even put it in company of movies like Blade Runner. Perhaps the best advocacy I can give for this movie is that, here I am at home after catching a showing with some friends, and not only did we talk about the movie all the way back home, here I am at four in the morning on a Friday night, polishing off a blog entry about it the very night I saw it.

I know how silly it can be to try to give yourself a catch phrase, but I'd like to close this movie review, and all my future reviews, with a statement that I think is not only apt for this particular movie but summarizes my feelings toward all stories, novels, comics and the like, especially in the when we're encouraged to 'enjoy' something as "mindless fun:"

Never, ever, ever turn your brain off.


David said...

Surely I'm not your *only* "regular reader and commenter"?

Thanks for the heads-up on this film. If it's really in the same league as "Bladerunner," possibly my favorite SF film (before Scott "fixed" it, anyway), then I need to check it out for sure.

Julian Perez said...

Well, you don't have to take my word for it if you don't want to: apparently this thing has dynamite word of mouth going on so you'll probably hear it's great from someone else pretty soon.

It's also making money, too, which blindsided me: the more oddball and smarter science fiction pictures never do.