Monday, August 17, 2009
Loathe as I am to find myself in the same camp as Armond White, I have to agree with him that District 9 is one overrated piece of crap. Yes, you may be wondering how I can slap this movie down so hard after I praised Terminator Salvation so vociferously earlier this year. Consider this, however. McG doesn't try to fool anyone into believing his Terminator sequel is anything but a blustering sci-fi action piece created simply to entertain. Taking a movie on its own terms is how I decide what's good and what's not. In this case, District 9 plays that deceiving bait-and-switch where it looks like we might be getting an intelligent science fiction allegory concerning apartheid by a promising young South African director. Instead, what starts out as an intriguing exploration into race, degenerates into an extremely conventional action movie. Shot in a faux-documentary style meant to trick you, the viewer, into thinking the film is going to attempt a measure of credibility, District 9 begins by following Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a paper-pusher promoted by the weapons company he works for to handle a dangerous eviction of illegal aliens confined in the titular slum inside Johannesburg, South Africa. Only these are not just your traditional cross-the-border-illegally kind of aliens. They're the come-from-outer-space kind of aliens. Van de Merwe's company, MNU, secretly hopes to confiscate the alien weapons and reverse-engineer them to make them work in human hands, something that has eluded them thus far. MNU gets lucky, at the expense of Van de Merwe, when the dumb bureaucrat gets sprayed with an unknown alien liquid he finds in one of the ramshackle huts the aliens reside in. The liquid initiates a metamorphosis in which the man starts slowly turning into one of the disturbing bug-like beings. The upside is the newly hybridized Van de Merwe is now the only non-alien on Earth that can operate said weapons. How long do you think it is before MNU wants to reverse-engineer him? Soon we have MNU mercenaries hunting down the poor guy, who has to hide in the very slum he was evicting aliens from, avoiding crazy Nigerian voodoo gangs (at their most racially stereotypical) that think they can gain the alien "secret power" by eating alien organs, and... well you get my drift. One big action thriller mess put together out of leftover science-fiction/horror/fantasy parts like a giant Frankenstein monster. And why does the second and third act feel like a sausage stuffed with movie byproducts? The clue lies in how the obviously talented director, Neill Blomkamp, got the opportunity to make this film. According to the L.A. Times, the film came about after producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) failed to save his Halo project from falling apart, a film Blomkamp was slated to direct. He felt so bad for Blomkamp that he decided to expand the novice director's short film Alive in Joburg into a feature-length movie, this movie, as a consolation. Much of what one glimpses in this short is the foundation for the best parts of the film, the earlier sequences that delineate an interesting parable about racism familiar to many who lived during apartheid, South Africa's abolished policy of segregation of its nonwhite people. But one cannot watch the rest without being drawn into playing a game I like to call, What Sci-Fi (or related genre) Story Are They Stealing From Now? Here are some examples: giant spaceship hovering over city...V (1983); segregation of aliens parallel to real-life aliens... Alien Nation (1988); machete-wielding voodoo gangs threatening the hero... The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); bug-like aliens as the underdog in a war with humans... Starship Troopers (1997) (an allegory done first and better by that shining beacon of restraint, the lunatic Paul Verhoeven); protagonist on the run from the military... The Incredible Hulk; human becoming a bug... take your pick, Kafka's Metamorphosis or Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Are science-fiction fanboys so starved for quality movies that they must rally behind this shit to hold up as an example of the profundity of the genre?