Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Movie Review - District 9

Okay two movie reviews in a row and a month apart is not exactly keeping this an active blog, but you get what you pay for. I was prepared for District 9 in a way I wasn't for Star Trek. I saw the commercials but I didn't read anything about it, I was not intentionally keeping myself ignorant qua Mssr McCandless, I just was not that interested to read reviews or of info. I also had a couple of beers beforehand. So I was prepared to enjoy the film even if it were a fluffy sci fi pic.

The commercials do not really give you a good idea what to expect from the film.
I was expecting something like Aliens meets Transformers.

I guess I liked it as I watched it, it was a visually interesting film. But immediately upon leaving I was disappointed. The film has a quasi-documentary style to it. Interviews, documentary style film footage, even fake cctv images meant to give the impression we were seeing the real events unfold unedited. And that was effective if a little hard on my poorly focusing eyes.
As I said the visual effects were very good. The CGI aliens "prawns" were believable and lifelike in their behavior and seemed to interact seamlessly with the actors. This was more impressive than say the Star Wars prequels where it looked like the human actors were in different rooms from the CGI critters. But like Jackson's LOTR Gollum, they were more or less believable.


The Set Up was oddly reminiscent of the cult film Alien Nation, Aliens come to Earth as refugees and find themselves the oppressed minority living in squalor. The idea that this was in the relatively distant past (20 years movie time) and so relatively mundane to humans in proximity was effective. Though the time-scale was never clear, was this set in an alternate present day, or the future or what? That was a little distracting and required some buy in. The aliens have been here long enough to get past the OMFG Aliens! stage, and for us both to learn the other's language, but virtually no effort was made to explore the mothership, backwards engineer the weapons, etc... What is the UIO, is that a United Nations Analog? Unclear. The Aliens spoke their own language, humans in the film could for the most part understand them, and the aliens could understand the humans (we got the alien dialogue in subtitles). Placing the alien camp in Johanisburg was a little heavy handed but effective -- oppressed beings living in camps, not free to wander the streets, etc... However, the set up seemed to be doing too much. It is clear that there was considerable mood setting going on. And with the bug-like aliens, the feeling was that things would go bad with the evil aliens, disease, or death was clearly foreshadowed (but..) I think that was an interesting red herring, but distracting. The filmmaker wanted to keep some of the truth secret and reveal it as the movie progressed, but never really carried through with that. The origin of the aliens for example, or why they are on Earth, or why they were stuck on Earth in the sorry state they were in was never explained at all. And this lack of information was not necessary or helpful to the plot.
The actual plot was a bit thin and familiar alien-human hybrid tries to rescue himself and new siblings from the evil corporation seeking to weaponize him. That part was fine for what it was. It keep the plot moving, provided for some good special effects and some surprises. But the effort put into studying him could have just as easily been put into training the Prawns to be soldiers since they were in general readily willing to follow orders and had limited morality.
The more interesting stuff was more subtle. The similarities between the aliens and humans in similar situations. The slow building up of the aliens as intelligent beings. The 'realness' of the main alien character (who was an actual character) was developed in surprising and fun ways, although the film did stray into the realm of buddy action flick like a Lethal Weapon towards the end, almost comically.
I think the plot suffered from too many holes that were needlessly left there. They had ample means to fill these holes without sacrificing much. The pseudo-documentary format would have allowed 'expert' opinion to fill in some details, or the dialogue between alien protagonist and his son could have served the dual purpose of 'humanizing' the aliens, and filling in some details. A simple exchange like "Dad, why are we stuck here on this lame planet?" or "Why did we come here in the first place" could have helped a bit.
The epilogue's reference to the new location for the aliens "District 10" alludes to the obvious sequel, and perhaps they hoped to keep some secrets for that, but this story doesn't really have the demand for that in the first place. I prefer secrets revealed, or if there is to be A secret, make that central to, rather than outside the plot.
Like many sci-fi films, the lack of continuity and consistency with technology plagues this film. At one point the baby alien activates both the alien mothership and robots to help his dad, but somehow this ability was forgotten earlier in the film, and why only one robot when we've seen more? The mystery 'fluid' is a both a desert topping (instant alien-transformer) and a floor wax (.5 liter fuel source for the mothership and smaller craft to return to the home planet). If they had this ability why not use it earlier, why hide the thing instead of bring it into the ship, etc.. The presence of hundreds of alien and human weapons in the alien camp, but almost zero use by the aliens of this technology, was a little odd. Presumably District 10 will explain all that if the box office permits. Again, the film could have answered it without resort to a sequel.

So... ultimately unsatisfying, but interesting in parts.
I liked the main character. His sort of Arthur Dent meets Ripley was a novel idea.
I liked the way the aliens personalities and intelligence was slowly revealed.
The documentary style was a good one, though the shaky cam got to my eyes after an hour or so.
I felt a little cheated by the constant bait and switch genre jumping. Is it Aliens? is it 28-Days Later? is it ET? is it Blood Diamond? But, part of me admires the film for playing on my expectations that it should fit into a specific genre and denying that to me.