Monday, August 24, 2009

DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009, South Africa) For 28 years extraterrestrials have been relegated to ghettos, their existence degrading and abortive, scrounging through human refuse, victimized by Capitalist and Militarist idealism. Wikus van de Merwe is in charge of the relocation project to move these aliens from the center of Johannesburg to the outskirts of town, and this becomes more an exercise in military action than “humanitarian” aide. He grudgingly befriends a Prawn named Christopher Johnson and together they must find a cure for his transformation and restart the hovering Mothership. Director and writer Neill Blomkamp has some grand ideals, utilizing the narrative structure of science fiction to examine human nature, but his story becomes a confused mass of melodrama and shoot’em up cliché. Blomkamp smartly begins the film with exposition in a cinema verite style, bringing the viewer into this possible reality with newsreel footage and interviews, and reveals very little about this grand mystery. This is absolutely essential in suspending our disbelief and it almost works: Pascal said that Truth is stranger than fiction…because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. And here the narrative becomes implausible and unable to reconcile with possibilities and descends into the prosaic. Many plot holes become obvious: It is difficult to believe that the alien compound would be allowed access to local crime lords…and the aliens allowed to keep weaponry. This would be the most heavily guarded structure on earth, whether its in South America or Washington DC! And every piece of alien technology would be confiscated and catalogued while the Mothership would have become home to thousands of scientists deconstructing the technology: this would be the greatest event in human history. Also, the Command Unit would have been easy to discover because it was filmed detaching from the ship; even so, satellite technology or, if the ship was an obstacle, metal detectors or search parties would have discovered the subsurface module. And why does Christopher Johnson spend twenty years collecting the black fluid fuel? Wasn’t it on the ship before they were discovered? The Prawns have some legal status otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to sign wavers: where was the Red Cross or other aid? And why didn’t the aliens have a representative, either human or from their own race? As Wikus transforms into an alien, he retains his human cognitive functions: how is he able to give commands to alien technology in English? And why would District 9 be the last place he would go: it would be the first! And cell phone calls are not only triangulated quickly but to within a few feet of the originating location. The poorly written script languishes in modern science fiction convention but does have its subtle moments: Blomkamp focuses upon Wikus and his diminishing physicality, his human identity being subsumed by this horrendous transformation. But his morality is questionable from the very beginning: he considers the aliens as sentient beings but has no problem aborting their young, or using threats to get these beings to sign his documents. Unfortunately, the story violates one of the basic tenets of creative writing: never extricate characters with Deus Ex Machina trickery; or in this case, Alienus Ex Machina. The CGI is brilliant and adds a gritty realism that provides the film with visual frisson that is underlined by a mournful score. The final scene of Wikus now fully transformed gently crafting a metal flower is a requiem for his lost humanity and fading hope. (C-)