Sunday, September 6, 2009

District 9

Image credit: Publicity still from District 9

I don't get to see many science fiction movies anymore. The last one I saw, the new Star Trek, was a mindless explosion fest, so full of contradictions and absurdities I think I spent the last half of it dumbfounded. So, it was with a fair bit of trepidation that I went to District 9, a South African production by Peter Jackson. Some of that trepidation came from having watched two of the three Lord Of The Ring pictures, which Jackson directed. They were good movies, but toward the end the story-telling gave way to mindless action.

I'd like to say District 9 wasn't like that, but it was. I just didn't mind it so much.

The story of the movie is that a group of aliens are stranded on Earth when their spaceship fails. Of course, anyone who has seen either the film or the TV series Alien Nation has seen this setup before. As in the Alien Nation productions, aliens come to Earth, and humans attempt to give them a place to live. Unlike the story of AN, in District 9 the aliens are put in a settlement camp, which ends up becoming a ghetto where human criminals take advantage of them. A large corporation, MNU, is put in charge of settling the aliens. Over the next twenty years, tensions grow between the aliens and the humans who live near them in Johannesburg. MNU is then contracted to move them to a new camp outside the city. The aliens, meanwhile, have plans of their own.

The man put in charge of this operation is Wikus Van De Merwe, a milquetoast who is the son in law of MNU's boss. Merwe is a great character - he is humane, but at the same time is neither self-assured nor broad-minded enough to do the job well. After being accidentally exposed to an alien chemical, he starts to turn into an alien, thus becoming an experimental subject of his own corporation, and then a fugitive from it.

At this point, the movie becomes more predictable. The aliens need the substance, which is down in the lab at MNU. Van De Merwe and the alien technician go to steal it back. Many explosions and vehicle chases ensue, and much ordnance is expended.

As alien-contact movies go, this one strikes me as more real than most. The aliens look only slightly humanoid. The best description I can come up with is that they look like a cross between a lizard and a cylon. They're advanced, physically strong, and very strange looking. The humans' reaction to them is something believable - these guys aren't E.T.. MNU is a corporate entity without a soul, sort of a Halliburton with an advanced biotech division. It's hard to miss the parallels with how much leeway corporations have been given in the last couple of decades. Given the setting of the movie, it's also hard to miss the idea that the situation the aliens find themselves in is a lot like what victims of human racism, and apartheid in particular, have to live with.

Sharlto Copley is terrific as Van De Merwe. His monologues in front of the camera are delightfully self-conscious, and as the movie progresses you really see a man progressively more out of his depth, and then learning to accept and grow into his new situation.

It would be nice if the plot device were a little less conventional and the resolution a bit less loud. Still, it's two thirds of a thoughtful movie, which is at least one third more than any other movie I've seen lately. If you're looking for science fiction with a little thought behind it, it's probably the best thing you're going to see for a while.

UPDATE: Babylon 5 fans might notice the presence of William Allen Smith as Dirk Michaels, an MNU executive. He played Jason Ironheart in the B5 episode "Mind War".


Dana Hunter said...

Um. Which of the two LOTR movies did you see? Because "mindless action" describes only very small proportions of the whole. If you thought the majority of them were "mindless action," I'm afraid you'll never be completely satisfied with any movie ever produced from the 1950s on...

Still. I'm glad this one was vaguely tolerable for ye. ;-)

Cujo359 said...

No, I thought the mindless action occurred toward the end. For the record, it was #1 and #3. #3 in particular was bad in that way.

george.w said...

What makes you think Halliburton doesn't have an advanced biotech division somewhere?

Cujo359 said...

KBR's food services division might qualify as biotech. Depends how deliberate you want the process to be, I suppose.