Monday, August 24, 2009

"District 9": space aliens provide a lesson in past apartheid

Peter Jackson, so well known for his Ring cycle for New Line, has produced a quasi-indie sci-fi parody, “District 9”, on location around Johannesburg and Soweto in South Africa, with S.A. director and writer Neill Blomkamp.

It’s pretty transparent that the film is a “commentary” on the country’s history of apartheid, carrying it to mixed extents by using “prawns”, aliens with arthropod-like bodies and human intelligence as the subclass. The film was produced and distributed by Columbia-Sony’s TriStar unit, and has a look and mood reminding one of Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” (1997). It also looks a bit like Summit’s “Hurt Locker” and TriStar here is giving us genre “arthouse” entertainment that resembles recent offerings from companies like LionsGate, Summit and Overture. (It would seem that Sony could have used its “Classics” division to distribute this film. But it could have used “Screen Gems”, too.) The squalor of apartheid is apparent, but the film could have opened up more had it used the full widescreen anamorphic lens rather than sticking to 1.85:1.

It opens as a docudrama (almost like “The Cove”). A huge spaceship, resembling that of Independence Day, hovers over Johannesburg. The government finally enters and incorrectly (we learn later) concludes that the leadership has gone and that the prawns are like worker insects (Indie Day again). They’re housed in a Soweto-like suburb called District 9 and the government learns how human they are, able to help a Nigerian black market. So the government (in this monument to anti-government ideology) and “corporate state” (the company MNU, which is rather like a capitalist enterprise in an autocratic state like China) decides to evict the prawns.

Enter agent Wilkus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who gleefully helps the media document his arrests and deportations, and talks like its all innocuous, constitutional, and in the best interest of the prawns. But one day he gets sprayed with prawn blood and is infected. Soon his left arm is in bandages, and he suddenly vomits black blood (like yellow fever) but then wants to eat fast food (like a pregnant woman after morning sickness). Now visually we’re treated to his essence as a virile-looking family man, with a devoted wife. But soon he winds up in a government lab ready for vivisection. He forfeits his chest hair, and we have a sequence that seems like a logical sequel to Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush” (I wonder if Blomkamp is familiar with that classic gay horror flick; I suspect so). But Merwe escapes and gets into a complicated deal with Christopher, one of the prawns, for reversal. One advantage of transformation would be the use his body to connect to alien weapons (a concept from the Fox “Alien” franchise). The alien technology has some contraptions that remind one of “Transformers”. The closing sequences of the film are for the spoilers: will the space ship be able to leave, and will Merwe get his manly human body back or not? (Oh, sometimes it doesn’t grow back.) Actor Copley must have really let his bod get pummeled for this film.

Attribution link for Wikimedia map of South Africa.

For a comparison with "Skyline" see the "Films on Major Challenges to Freedom" blog Nov. 14, 2010.

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