The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

District 9

This may sound obvious when describing a genre of films, but there's something special about science fiction films. What is it? Anything and everything is possible in a sci-fi film. Anything. It's fantasy, make-believe, so use your imagination and have some fun with it. One of the most original sci-fi flicks in recent memory, 2009's District 9 certainly plays up that anything can go angle.

In the early 1980s, an alien spaceship descends on Earth, ultimately hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. An investigation of the dormant ship finds thousands of sick, malnourished alien beings inside. The government -- not having any other promising answers -- sets up a small city within the city for these aliens, dubbed District 9, and life goes on....but not always for the better. Years pass, and the alien problem is serious. It's now 2010, and it's been decided by the government and the Multinational United (MNU) corporation that the aliens -- now well over a million of them -- will be relocated outside the city. The son-in-law of the CEO, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), has been placed in charge of the relocation, but nothing about the immense project will come easy, especially for the well-meaning Wikus as he gets caught up on both sides.

When 'District' was released in 2009, reviews were almost uniformly positive for director Neill Blomkamp's film. Watching it for the first time a few years later, it's easy to see why. If aliens are visiting Earth in a movie, it's the rare occasion where it's not an attack/invasion hell bent on taking over the world. Here, we don't know why these aliens are here, they just show up and are trapped without a way to get back to their home. The set-up -- putting them in a shanty-like town -- is a not so thinly veiled dig at apartheid and South Africa's troubled history between blacks and whites. But it has aliens! Moral of the story is simple. It's not the most subtle story, but it is original in execution. It takes something we know -- apartheid -- and tweaks it with an interesting twist. Go figure that an alien story in South Africa with apartheid undertones and some heavy duty action would be as interesting and entertaining as this flick. It certainly is worthwhile though.

As if some atypical aliens weren't enough, Blomkamp's story is far from typical. It's a smart movie for one, not just a random shoot 'em up. It's the storytelling technique that sets it apart. The opening 15 minutes play out like a documentary featuring interviews that would look right at home on a History Channel show. We see countless interviews explaining the history of the alien arrival, their treatment in District 9, and the lead-up to Wikus' mission to move the aliens out of Johannesburg. The actual story seems to have taken place a few weeks -- maybe months -- after the mission, some questions left still unanswered as to what actually happened during the alien eviction and subsequent fall-out. Jason Cope plays Grey Badnam, a journalist and correspondent who has vast knowledge of everything that went on but is similarly still looking for more specific answers. Through a series of interviews, we get a good glimpse at his background. The technique of a documentary-like story is a big boost to the story, not just original but entertaining in its originality.

There is no star power or even name recognition -- at the time at least -- among the cast, and that ends up being a huge boost. The unquestioned star is Copley as Wikus van de Merwe, an Afrikaner bureaucrat assigned to lead the alien eviction. Through the intro documentary interviews, we learn that Wikus isn't exactly a screw-up, but he is a little goofy, a little different. He also happens to be the son-in-law of powerful MNU executive (Louis Minnaar) so go figure. Copley makes his feature film debut and leaves quite an impression, going through quite a transition as a character and literally as a person. The twist? SPOILERS While leading the eviction, he accidentally ingests an alien fluid and immediately shows signs of being physically transformed into an alien prawn, starting with his arm. END OF SPOILERS He goes from driven company man to defender of the alien prawns when he sees what's actually going on behind closed doors. It's an impressive performance though, one that keeps the story based on a personal level as all sorts of chaos ensues in District 9.

Now this comes as a nice capper, but 'District' is smart, well-written and......a highly entertaining action blockbuster. In Wikus' "condition," he's been given an odd talent. He now has the ability to fire alien weaponry and technology, something humans have been able to do since the prawns' arrival. MNU, the government and a small army of mercenaries (led by the evil Koobus, played by David James) want to get their hands on Wikus, but by now he's sided with the prawns. The follow-up is a running shootout over the final hour or so through Johannesburg and and District 9. The ending especially has some surprises in store.

I thought the best part though was the surprising relationship that develops between Wikus and a highly intelligent prawn dubbed Christopher Johnson (also played by Cope). Chris and his son, a smallish prawn, have been working for years to reactive the alien ship hovering over Johannesburg, but Wikus accidentally unleashes the necessary fuel when he investigates their shack. They form an unlikely partnership -- Wikus leading Chris into the facility where the fuel is, Chris promising to cure Wikus of his growing prawn-dom -- that is never completely trustworthy, and therefore that much more interesting. I really liked this movie and am really glad I finally caught up with it. The ending certainly leaves the door open for a sequel, but I wouldn't touch it. As is, it's pretty perfect.

District 9 (2009): ***/****

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