The Motion/Captured Review: ‘District 9’ delivers as sci-fi and drama

08.14.09 8 years ago 9 Comments

AP Photo/Sony Pictures

Van Der Merwe goes on vacation to England, and when he comes back, he says to his friend, “Those English aren’t so bad.  They’re friendly, even to strangers.  They’ll take you home, offer you a bed, and even give you a bit of breakfast in the morning.  For free.  No charge.”

“That happened to you, Van Der Merwe?” asked Von Tonder.

“No, but it happened to my sister,” Van Der Merwe said.  “Every night!”

That’s an example of a “Van Der Merwe” joke.  Told by South Africans from childhood on, the jokes are all about the same central character, a buffoon.  Always the butt of everything.  I’m sure it’s not an accident, then, that director Neil Blomkamp (who co-wrote the film with Terri Tatchel) kicks his movie off with first-time film actor Sharlto Copley playing Wikus Van De Merwe, the main character in the movie, as a flaming tit.  He’s not the most likeable lead of all time.  He gets a job promotion because his father-in-law is the head of his agency.  He makes some callous, morally repugnant decisions in the first 20 minutes of so, and he manages to seriously annoy everyone around him.  Once again, Van De Merwe is the bumbling ass.

But he doesn’t deserve what happens to him.

[more after the jump]

The first time I saw “District 9” was at Comic-Con.  I wrote about that screening and a bit of my general reaction, but Sony asked me to be very, very vague about the film itself.

Tonight, I decided to go see the film again before writing my review.  When I saw it, I didn’t know anything about it, really.  I’d heard the backstory, seen the short, but no one had really seen it, and there was no buzz about the movie to speak of.  Obviously, that changed immediately after that film.  I flipped out.  A lot of people flipped out.  It was one of those films that immediately felt like a favorite, like it just drops right onto the shelf, part of the canon.  I think the last time I saw a genre film that felt like this much of a stick-the-landing home run was “Shaun Of The Dead.” 

This is a very different type of movie, though.  I mentioned in my preview piece that this film made me feel the same way I felt the first time I saw “Robocop,” and I stand by that specific comparison.  There’s something very reminiscent of Murphy’s slow slide away from humanity in the way Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) handles the truly godawful fate that is thrust upon him in the course of doing a heinous, vile job.  But it’s “Robocop” if they had decided to turn Murphy into “The Fly” from the Jeff Goldblum version.  There’s a sadness to both of those movies, even when they get outrageous and wild, that “District 9” also posesses.  I think it’s one of the reasons that the fans of the film (and it’s picking up a rapid rabid fanbase) are so passionate.  It feels like one of those rare films that tries harder.  It doesn’t want to just give you one thing.  It’s not just content to be an allegory.  Or an action film.  Or a character piece.  Or a horror film.  Or a father-son love story.  Nope.  It wants to be all of those things, and amazingly, it sort of pulls it all off.

Make no mistake… this film works because Sharlto Copley works.  He’s not a professional actor with a long history of work, but you’d be forgiven if that’s what you thought based on how incredibly good he is here.  This is the kind of genre performance that people hold near and dear, like Bruce Campbell in “Evil Dead 2.”  Completely devoted to the part.  Willing to do anything.  And you feel like you’re going through it with them.  Wikus starts out, as I said, as a somewhat ridiculous figure, but it’s through suffering that he asserts a soul, and Copley hits every note just right along the way.

You’ll probably read some conversation online about all the amazing digital character work done by WETA Digital here.  Safe assumption, since it’s Peter Jackson producing the film.  But WETA Digital was actually working on “Avatar,” and they couldn’t spearhead a movie filled with this much character animation at the same time.  Instead, Imagine Engine is the company that did the lion’s share of the animation, and they deserve to become much better known thanks to the remarkable quality of what they did here.  There were other houses like The Embassy involved in the making of the film, and WETA Digital did contribute some work, but let’s make sure we give credit where it’s due on the film.

Likewise with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who shot this on the Red camera to stunning result.  He deserves to share some of the credit with Blomkamp on this film’s kinetic energy, and on shooting the film in such a way that he really manages to sell the reality of the Prawns, which is what everyone calls the aliens.  By refusing to shoot any of the special effects like they’re special, Opaloch really makes it feel like these are all physical things.  He grounds the film in reality, which means that the fantastic elements in it seem even more fantastic.

I know I haven’t said much about plot here, but that’s because I think you’d have to be a miserable prick to ruin this movie for anyone.  So much of the pleasure of a first viewing comes from the shock, but seeing it again tonight, what struck me as most enjoyable is the details of the world that Blomkamp has built.  And my guess is that we’ll see this world again, because Blomkamp has left enough room for the audience to walk out and immediately start discussing both what they saw and what is left unsaid.  It’s exciting to see someone create a SF idea that’s big enough to not only support this one film, but that leaves room for lots more stories still untold.

I think the mockumentary structure of some of the film is a choice that doesn’t really hurt the movie, but it doesn’t gain the movie anything, either.  And, frankly, I think it’s a weak choice for a feature.  It works for a short, but Blomkamp has to repeatedly drop the idea when it’s not convenient for the story he’s trying to tell.  And that’s fine.  I think it’s a choice that is, more often than not, made because filmmakers are still worried that their film will look “too video,” but I think that time has passed.  At this point, I don’t really believe that audiences get hung up on how something was shot, as long as they enjoy what they’re watching.  I also think the film reaches for a lot of social metaphors, and it’s a little overambitious, leaving a lot of threads in play and unresolved by the end of the film.  Still… too much ambition isn’t something that I would call a bad thing.  It just leaves the film feeling shaggy.  My favorite stuff is when the film stops reaching for larger significance and focuses on the characters.  Christopher Johnson and his son are two of my favorite characters in anything this year, and my fingers are crossed that we haven’t seen the last of them.

We certainly haven’t seen the last of Neil Blomkamp.  Expect this to be the start of a long and interesting career.  He’s that perfect blend of technical skill and emotional ability.  He’s made a technically dazzling film that works as a human experience, and as a result, I think “District 9” delivers as a smart, visceral sci-fi parable unlike anything else we’ve seen this year.  And if it is a sly, subversive Van De Merwe joke at heart, it’s got the best punchline of any Van De Merwe joke ever.

“District 9” opens everywhere today.

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