District 9, a Sentient and Smart Sci-Fi Movie

Call me silly after viewing the horror that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but when I heard there was well-paced and intense mecha combat in District 9, it quickly ramped my interest up again. Way up. Because I already heard that the film was pulling in a healthy number of great reviews, but now it has robots! After seeing it tonight, though, it’s one of the good things that I can jot down about what makes a strong science fiction movie. With great lead characters, fluid and very realistic CGI, a smattering of original ideas, and good pacing, it held the plot in without many major leaks. But here’s the kicker: with a mere budget of $30 million, Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp have done a marvelous job at producing what was easily the best mature sci-fi film all year long. Take that, RotF and your $200 million black hole!

Don’t leave it to me to spoil the plot for you – go watch it yourself, or at least read what follows alongside the Wikipedia entry. I’ll give a quick rundown of what made the movie great in my eyes, what faltered, comments that fit neither, and overall what I think of this as a Christian film watcher.

The Good:
– If Wikus van der Merwe were a geometrical solid, he’d be as close to spherical as I can perceive in recent years. He’s that good of a lead character. Sharlto Copley did a fantastic job at portraying a flawed everyman sort of person, whose biggest internal tragedies (selfishness, short-temperedness, naïve attitude, pride, and others) still hung in fragments nearly ’till the end. Wikus’ development from human to alien was greatly complimented by his internal struggle as he grew from an ignorant, cold human into a warmer, more-sympathetic person. A particularly plot-centric scene that made him seem very broken inside was when Multi-National United workers made him test various alien weapons, increasing the target types until he was forced to fire on a living alien against his will. Emotionally-moving? Sympathy-evoking? Certainly for both, and it remains true for much of his screen time.
– Resident alien protagonist Christopher Johnson, and his little son CJ, added a healthy amount of dimension and humanity to what was otherwise a somewhat-flat race of creatures. You might even say that Johnson’s little boy was cute. Well, I did.
– A rapid, no-nonsense history about the aliens’ arrival 20 years ago; we’re dropped into present-day Johannesburg with hanging questions, but some were answered as the film progressed. The rest of them were generally not plot-critical (though a few faults included the alien’s former purpose, their home planet location, as well as the supposed death of their leader(s) – assuming they acted like honeybee workers without a queen).
– The first half-hour of the film developed good points about the alien apartheid, and kept it on the down-low for the rest of the movie. I remember reading that Blomkamp himself said that this movie was not meant to convey a message; of course, he did grow up in South Africa before the apartheid system finally ended, so this was in some ways his life via a film analogy.
– Awesome use of Peter Jackson’s well-known CGI alongside Neill Blomkamp’s own talented crew of post-production effects, the latter of whom were mostly graduated colleagues from his film school. See it for yourself.
– Top-notch sound scripting and music. The mothership powerup sequence was easily one of the richest moments in D9’s effect library. If I rent this movie in the future, it will likely be the title to calibrate my subwoofer with.
– Interesting use of darker and fast-paced humor in the scripting, particularly when it came to evicting the aliens, and sadly, killing their babies. Here, Wikus’ naïve nature definitely shone through. And get this: Christopher Johnson assembles a makeshift explosive in 5 seconds to escape in 2 seconds, all while giving the “no duh” treatment to Wikus (thanks for the reminder, Bad Guys Win). Unfortunately, this was also a poor plot device…
– One seriously fast, realistic, and “I MUST get inspiration from that!” single-seater mech (more of a bipedal reverse-joint alien walker exosuit with slave weapon arms, which appears to have been inspired by Metal Gear REX and the Madox 01 – but I’ll spare the details); what followed was a nicely-paced battle with both the mobsters and MNU soldiers. One particular scene which raised the level of plot originality was when Wikus first strapped into the machine: not only did he not fire its über-powered weapons in defense, but with his selfish ambitions in tow, he ran away from protecting Christopher and his son for personal survival’s sake. The scene of regret that followed, without words, proceeded to turn him around inside and have him face the firefight with reignited willpower. When was the last time I saw a mecha reflect a pilot’s emotion effectively?
– The ending worked out better than most action films with 1-minute closers, though D9’s being rushed notwithstanding; Wikus turning into a full alien (and a humble, deeper human inside) isn’t something I’ve seen in the past without the persona being killed off shortly after.

The Bad:
– Like many action films, D9 fell into a drought of original ideas in the second half; I still don’t understand why good action can’t be unique too. I’m unable to name all the faults right now, but the following comments reflect some instances.
– Inconsistent usage of the mockumentary-style filming, especially as the plot progresses. We’re given a healthy dose of it for the first half-hour of D9, but as the plot slowly moves into action mode, the consumer and security camera footage start to dwindle. They suddenly returned once I “felt” the ending was about to come through, which basically prevented me from experiencing a smoother closing.
– Not just a complaint that I have from a Christ-centered POV, but please…cut way down with the cussing. I completely lost count on how many times the “bomb” was dropped during the second half of D9; it squandered any further development Wikus had with important characters from the South African mobsters and the MNU soldiers.
– Some cheap, totally-unneeded moments that sadly reminded me of Transformers series, including aliens urinating on-camera and terribly-cliché lines from a few South African mob leaders.
– Revealing the key alien characters (mainly Christopher Johnson) was a little awkward, as the close-up shot with them conversing immediately followed a telephoto-zoomed newscast clip; the same goes for revealing a key component, the fuel cell (I’ll go as far as to criticize the cheesy use of red-colored ferrofluid as a “filtration device” and the cell with an SLR-style iris as a safety cover. And why does the cell sound exactly like a geiger counter clicking when manipulated?).
– A few bad plot revealings/voice-overs during the mockumentary sequences, the worst of which ended up rushing the ending of the film (Wikus was not seen again after this video clip? Well, why not continue developing it with a traditional transition to show what really happened to him as his transformation completed?).
– A few glaring plot holes, including the all-time favorite: why wasn’t the MNU facility well-guarded and/or locked down to prevent Wikus from escaping his demise, and later on re-entering to retrieve the fuel cell?
– A number of plot devices that made me cringe a little, including Christopher Johnson’s 5-second explosives assembly and the above clip about Wikus’ “disappearance.” On the contrary, one plot device that worked out well was when Wikus was sprayed by Christopher Johnson’s fuel cell; the sequence of actions that immediately lead into and out of it made the movie-critical event seem trivial compared to the rest of his search routine.
– Cliché-ridden characters on the MNU and South African side, mainly with the leaders and sub-leaders of both sides. Most of them got blown away or torn apart, regardless. :/
– Not enough depth to the above characters as well as Wikus’ relatives and wife (the latter in particular, because she helped set up a potential sequel situation). Though it is pretty hard when the movie is limited to 112 minutes.
– It was a bit hard initially to get over the alien language, a series of guttural clicks and gurgles; I mean, haven’t we been there before? But coming from an anime-watching background, I just took in the subtitles and voiced it over in my head instead.

General Comments:
– Very, very violent, a là Blomkamp’s older splatter-stick routines coupled with the dark humor at times (filmography here). It all felt relatively tame at first with Wikus’ fingernails and teeth falling out, then whole flying bodies due to a shockwave alien rifle, but it abandoned such restraint in the final battle. I could recall times when I’ve exploded players with the Lightning Gun or Flak Cannon in the Unreal Tournament series (skills lacking), as D9 burst and tore apart entire heads, arms, legs, and bodies – both human and alien – and more so the former. True, some looked like watermelons blowing up with squib charges (lighter-than-expected pink – not red! – chunks flew all over and into the camera many times, instead of following the direction of the weapon rounds), but take this with a shaker full of salt: it could easily get worse with today’s Hollywood.
– Interesting, subtle uses of colder color temperatures and grainier filming techniques. D9 is filled with well-throttled action when it isn’t drenched in gore, and filmed at a high level to boot – forget Michael Bay, because Neill Blomkamp’s got shakycam battles down pat!

Christian Viewer’s Advice:
Watch with strong discretion. Honestly. The story is good and the main characters are well-created, but Christian moviegoers need to be mature enough to handle an R-rated movie of this caliber. This isn’t Men in Black with alien humor. Being able to withstand a stream of cuss words and flying body parts isn’t enough either – the relatively-narrow-minded portrayal of some lesser characters can distort our perception of whom to care for, when in fact God asks us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
– The occult, (inter-species) prostitution, cannibalism, and racial profiling are implied and seen prominently in D9. Again, these are things that one must be knowledgeable in to avoid potentially misunderstanding God’s clear stance on all of these issues. Which are all, by the way, detestable in His eyes.
– Note how Wikus van der Merwe, despite realizing his life’s at stake and subsequently coming to “redemption” with Christopher and his race, still carries some past struggles that he strives (or is forced) to overcome as the later plot threads emerge.
– Sometimes, people we’ve shunned turn out to be the ones who bring us back towards Christ. What if someone like Christopher, who wants to help his people survive for better purposes, came to ask you for assistance?
– D9 portrays instinctive violence as an effective means of getting one’s way, but it’s obvious in the real world that such a means never works in the end. Think about why this has always been true. Does Christ prefer us to take undue revenge on others?
– For believers out there, how did accepting Jesus as our savior “break” the old, sinful self within ourselves as time passed? How does He use suffering and sometimes-heartbreaking events to refine us into stronger, more Christ-like people? Can we assuredly rely on Him every day, and find joy in suffering as proclaimed in 1 Peter 4:13?

So, it appears that the number of negative comments outweigh the positive, right? Well, yes. But overall, District 9 was quite enjoyable, unlike the heap of junk that was TF:RotF. And I do recommend it to viewers who want reasonably-smart science fiction, not turn-off-the-mind movies. D9 helped me think critically through a number of plot points, including racism, what to avoid when Hollywood tries to portray human violence, how I have developed as a follower of Christ, and how I’ve put aside my past sins – not without issues and recurrence, but I know spiritual growth requires the Holy Spirit at the core.

And yes, there’s a possibility of a sequel, so let’s see what happens over the coming months. More mecha power suit goodness with an intelligent plot? I hope so!

1 comment:

  1. District 9 Movie Lover, November 4, 2009, 15:55:47 PM EST

    The cinematography was excellent. My companions felt the same way. Interestingly enough, the open-ended conclusion somehow felt right to me. Here’s hoping that the fiscal and critical success of this movie leads to a sequel, or at the very least a conclusion to this tale…


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