District 9 (***½)

Posted on August 15th, 2009 in Commentary,Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Prawns a la Apartheid

Prawns a la Apartheid

If you are planning to see District 9, I urge you to stop reading reviews and just go see it.  It will best be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible, so that the film can be experienced without preconceptions.  I will warn you that this film is not for the squeamish, and the R rating is well deserved.  I don’t recall there being any sex or nudity, and the language isn’t all that bad, so you can infer from that where the R rating comes from – the violence, evil, and inhumanity.

You’ve been warned, the information starts flowing below – seriously, just go see it, then come back here.

Really, just go.

Okay, for those still reading, this film as that rare cinematic gem in that it is both completely unique and absolutely entertaining.  It took a few minutes to get my bearings as the film started, but I was quickly absorbed into the story and felt like I didn’t blink for the entire running time, except when diverting my eyes from the carnage on the screen.

We jump into the middle of a story where a gigantic alien spacecraft is hovering of Johannesburg, South Africa, and has been there for 20 years.  The aliens on board, numbering in the millions, were “rescued” by earthlings and put into a holding camp, which over the years devolved into a ghetto.  The aliens are referred to, derogatorily, as “prawns” because of their resemblence to roughly human-sized shellfish.  The prawns from the ship seem to be all be from a worker-class, and aren’t particularly smart, communicative, creative, or industrious.

They do have language, consisting of very alien-sounding clicks, grunts, and squeals, and they can understand English, and the human governmental workers that interface with the aliens can also understand their language.  The prawns are enamored of cat food, and the local Nigerian criminals are only too happy to provide it to them, at a price.  The Nigerians are also accumulating alien weaponry, even though each weapon is genetically locked and can only be fired by the aliens.

As the movie opens, the residents of Jo’burg are tired of having the aliens around, and a private conglomerate called MNU has been contracted to build a new settlement for the prawns 200 miles outside of town, and then forcibly relocate the aliens there.  Technically, the aliens have rights and there is at least a superficial attempt to try to make it all seem legal, but the aliens don’t really understand what an eviction notice is, so the logistics are kept on track by private mercenaries, who are only too happy to…uh…incent the prawns into cooperating.

MNU puts a man named Wikus Van De Merwe in charge of the move.  Wikus is a middle-management type, not really too bright or ambitious, not really evil, either…just sort of banal and thoughtless.  He doesn’t seem like he’s spent any time examining the awe-inspiring fact that humanity has discovered another sentient race, and that race is advanced enough to send a ship to our planet.  He seems about as engaged and caring as a farmer would be about his cows…yes, he cares, but only because it’s his job to care, and that care isn’t really very deep or profound.

Wikus and his team have to go through the formality of getting the prawns to “sign” their eviction notices, so that there is an audit trail showing that their forced move to the new camp is fully legal.  He goes about this job with the sort of manufactured enthusiasm that any middle-manager would have for an unpleasant and thankless task that nonetheless got him a small promotion of sorts.  He grins and bears it, tries to keep up a good attitude for his team, and even has a camera crew tagging along to document the relocation.

The crux of the story revolves around a particular alien who is definitely *not* a hive-minded worker.  He’s obviously a leader within the alien community, and he has a small son who he watches over with great fatherly care and devotion.  He’s also been on a 20 year mission to gather enough fuel to get his small command module to launch and get back up to the mothership so that he can rescue his people and go home.  He has just gathered the last of the needed fuel when he and his team are rousted by the MNU mercenaries for relocation.

Wikus, while involved in rousting this alien, becomes infected by an agent that starts a transformation of his DNA – to the point where one of his arms turns into one of the tentacled-flippers that the aliens have.  Interestingly enough, his DNA gives him the ability to arm and fire the alien weaponry, which makes him very valuable to MNU – valuable in the sense that he is a mass of tissue with DNA they can harvest to create hybrid soldiers capable of using the superior alien firepower.  However, the entity known as Wikus Van De Merwe is valueless, a complication, a glitch to be fixed as MNU moves forward to reap their billions in defense contracts.

And therein lies the story.  Wikus wants nothing more or less than to go back to being human, and to hold his wife again.  The head alien tells Wikus that if he helps recover the fuel and get them to the mothership, he has medical equipment that can re-humanize him.  MNU, however, will stop at nothing to recover the tissue culture known as Wikus Van De Merwe so that they can continue to harvest him.

The footage shot by the film-crew-within-a-film is used to book-end the movie in news report/documentary style, including interviews with key players, excerpts of newscasts, etc.  As you may have been able to infer from the above description, the storyline is quite unique.  The effects are outstanding – after a couple of minutes the digitally rendered aliens simply become characters.  The hovering mothership, the size of a city itself, looks real – or as real as such a site would look considering the unreality inherent in a city-sized alien ship hovering over a major metropolitan area for two decades.  And the weaponry is suitably dazzling and lethal.

Put it all together and it’s a movie unlike any I’ve ever seen.  There are parts that call to mind other movies – Aliens, Men in Black, Independence Day, Robocop…hell, even Office Space.  But it’s not slavish copies of those, it’s a unique pastiche of those kinds of films that came before it, but with the result being something completely fresh, and definitely worth fighting the crowds and paying the full price for an opening weekend viewing.

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