Wednesday, September 2, 2009

District 9 Review

District 9

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

The best science fiction has, traditionally, always had one foot planted strongly in its present. In the 1950s, filmmakers helped shape the genre by presenting allegories of Cold War America grappling with the paranoia of communism in such classics as "The Thing From Another World" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

In the intervening decades, filmmakers have continually recognized the ability to reflect real society through fantasy to address political or social concerns. Clearly attuned to his most successful predecessors, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp directs "District 9" with a ferocious and clear-eyed intensity rarely felt in contemporary sci-fi.

In Blomkamp's version of South Africa's battle against apartheid politics, the downtrodden and discriminated are a race of aliens who arrived on Earth 28 years earlier and hovered over Johannesburg, their spaceship out of fuel and the inhabitants malnourished to the brink of death. Out of fear, the South African government intervened and relegated them to a slum.

Now, na've up-and-coming government agent Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) helps lead an effort to evict the aliens into a smaller concentration camp, where the government can naturally exert more direct influence on the creatures.

Made on a scant budget of only $30 million - compare that to the nearly $200 million budget of "Transformers 2" - "District 9" contains some of the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping, nerve-rattling special effects wizardry of any blockbuster this year.

Shot largely on location in actual South African slums, "District 9" has a palpably urban feel. It's loaded with dust and crawling with grime, and rather expertly captures a distinct verisimilitude by shooting most of the film like a television documentary.

The effects and nasty makeup blends seamlessly into the intricate and rickety camera movements and sharp editing of each action scene, making the film immersive and completely captivating.

Blomkamp's film is built off the rather common theme of cross-cultural, or in this case cross-species, understanding and while it's hard to make the case that it advances the idea of a "socially conscious science fiction film" into uncharted territory, "District 9" is whittled of fat and excess, its politics laid bare but simultaneously expertly concealed beneath its graphic and gripping aesthetic.

It's a lean machine of gross-out makeup and gore of the highest caliber, superbly calibrated to launch effortlessly from set piece to set piece. Copley helps keep the pace and tension high with his charismatic lead performance, throwing himself wholly into his character's fears and resolves, and giving the audience an easy place to hold their sympathies.

But even as "District 9" works as a consummate thrill ride, it's also smart enough not to get pigeonholed by the cinematic conventions and echoes it structures its story around. Scientists exploiting alien life for government gain, small alien children harassed by workers and brutish and unforgiving soldiers help make up the dusty landscape of the film, but thankfully Blomkamp's script uses these as efficiently as possible, as mere touchstones to simplify his exposition.

"District 9" has the effect of being rolled around inside a steel barrel. It's an exhilarating action film that's always tossing and turning in the most unpredictable way, and it's hard to shake the shock.

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