District 9 – In Theatres Now!
by Mike Chambers
Imagine that movies could make sweet love and reproduce with one another. Now imagine that two venerable classics like Zulu and The Conversation mated and produced a movie that carried within its genes both the epic scope and the heart-breaking intimacy of its progenitors. This movie would not be District 9. However, if that movie, in a fit of rebellion, ran away from home and made hot nasty love to Mad Max and produced a movie that had epic scope, heart-breaking intimacy, plus a surreal and terrifying allure, THAT movie would be District 9. It’s true: no coupling of any 2 great movies can do this film justice. It takes nothing less than a manage-a-trios involving Michael Kane, Gene Hackman, and Mel Gibson to pull it off.
There is much that can be said about the plot and structure of the film that would utterly spoil it for the first-time viewer. But it is safe to say that this is an alien invasion film of sorts. What’s left ambiguous is the alien race’s intent. We know that the aliens have been rounded up in what is essentially a shanty town known as District 9. The film draws on various narrative techniques to pull us deeper into the circumstances surrounding District 9 including documentary-style interviews, surveillance footage, and conventional cinematography. The tone of these techniques is a little uneven, especially while the story is trying to build up steam. But once the momentum picks up, the transitions among styles is smoother and lends some nice tension to the film (one might say… like watching The Conversation).
There is a lot to this movie, and while it feels very dense, it does not feel overly-long. Clearly, Peter Jackson’s influence did not stretch far enough to give us another King Kong “epic” monster movie. But within this film’s tight run time, we are treated to a truly multi-dimensional work. The special effects are incredible. If you felt utterly ripped off by the “big reveal” of the alien form in Signs (and shame on you if you didn’t) then District 9 will heal those wounds for you. The alien race is stunningly rendered and matched with some very smart location filming. The creature work is, in a word, flawless. But within this special-effects sci-fi bonanza there are many more gems to be found. When you think you have this movie’s rhythms down, and you’re ready to sit back and enjoy a pretty re-telling of Independence Day or even Enemy Mine you are shocked into the horrors of conflicting cultures, the hopelessness of being literally surrounded by a culture that will never accept you and you can never hope to understand, and the tragedy of lives dashed by blind war-mongering and prejudice (one might say… like watching Zulu).
Tying it all together is an unmistakable aesthetic. It is not pretty. It is beautiful. Because we are so completely transported to this awful place called District 9, we abandon our familiar reference points. A high tracking shot across the roofs of tin shacks becomes as beautiful as sun on a rippling lake. The heaping piles of refuse and ruin are like so many hillsides blooming with a riot of colors. The brutal and relentless sun is dazzling even as it glistens on open-air meat markets and ranks of concertina wire. This movie has a look that you can almost smell. Its grotesqueness is so thorough and so immersive, that its attraction is undeniable. The perfect backdrop for a story with some humor, no small amount of terror, and no end of macabre curiosity (one might say… like watching Mad Max … see what I did there?)
Rank: 4.5/5. Nearly perfect, but very occasionally stumbling into some over-long and over-wrought “action movie” sequences.