Monday, September 14, 2009

District 9

First, this being a fairly major film at a commercial-chain cinema, there are the trailers for various upcoming SF-ish blockbusters. These always make me feel old and cranky these days, and I assume that anyone with flicker-sensitive epilepsy just no longer goes to the cinema. Even the moderately interesting-looking Surrogates gets flattened down to the level of the rest. After a while, they all run together - explosion, dark corridor, explosion, flickering light giving glimpse of threat, explosion... oh, grow up.

(SF fans are forever whingeing about ignorant mainstream writers who deny that their stories venturing into the topics of time travel or genetic engineering are science fiction. But remember; this is what "science fiction" means these days.)

But after a while, we did get District 9. This has a few explosions and even some flickering lights, especially in the later sections which - as every critic and blogger has noted - shift into conventional action movie shoot-out mode - but the aesthetic is mostly a bit more sophisticated than all that. It's also amazing squalid. For years, SF film-makers have been working on the principle that, if they make their imagined futures a bit shabby and scruffy, they'll look more plausible, but here, things tip right over the edge. District 9, the South African slum where a giant spaceship's load of mostly idiotic aliens has been deposited, is basically an inhabited rubbish dump. The segments taking place in human society gleam by comparison, although they're mostly set in chaotic offices, scruffy burger bars, and fading domestic housing; anyway, they're heavily punctuated with gross incidents drawing on the traditions of body-horror movies.

This shabbiness is part of the film's half-hearted attempt at a verite style; early on, and at times later, it pretends to be a documentary about events in the recent past of its alternative history, including footage originally filmed for a documentary about the company responsible for relocating those aliens from their slum to a camp up country. But that conceit simply doesn't hold; to tell its story, the movie keeps switching to scenes which no one could have filmed, and which don't have the quality of "dramatic reconstruction". It's also been described as a modern treatment of the classic B-movie form, presumably because of some of its themes - alien incursion on Earth, horrific transformation suffered by the protagonist - but this doesn't hold either; actually, the film owes more overall to the modern popcorn-movie form, with its run-and-shoot thriller scenes, extensive use of special effects, extremely rubbery and arbitrary "science", significant convenient plot holes, and use of a totally amoral and high-tech-weapon-obsessed corporation as its primary villain.

But it's definitely a highly eccentric sort of modern SF thriller, pushing itself forward as an indictment of man's inhumanity to prawn while not letting anybody off the hook - almost all of the humans present, of all races and nationalities, are bastards of one stripe or another, and most of the aliens are violent morons. There have been some discomforted debates about the extent to which the movie's refusal to grant any group unambiguous heroic status is really Swiftian satiric savagery, and how much it's just unrestrained prejudice; well, I dunno, but all I can say is that if any Nigerians are really concerned about their nation's image, they can leave this film alone for now and start by doing something about all those scam e-mails oozing out of Lagos. And anyone paying attention at the end will note that one fairly major character who proves something of a hero (and who seems to be facing punishment for it) is in fact black.

Yeah, District 9 is an oddity, probably completely unique, schlepping in devices, themes, and techniques from all over genre movie-making and reality in order to raise questions - and then running away in the ensuing chaos, leaving its surviving victims with a face full of something worrying, unidentified, and just possibly transformative. Not my favourite film of the year, personally, but possibly the most interesting thing we'll see in a twelvemonth.

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