Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

I won't be the first one to tell you to go see District 9. I also won't be the first one to tell you that it's not all it's hyped to be. As with Cloverfield, the promotion and critical ovations foment expectations that are nearly impossible to meet. District 9 is not a Messianic work.

It is, however, a really nifty genre-straddling piece of action-adventure. By stripping some of the best gears and cogs from horror, disaster films, alien SF, and even contemporary sociopolitical features like The Constant Gardener, all mashed together and presented roughly documentary-style, District 9 strikes a very fresh balance and manages to surprise at nearly every turn. The first act, strictly journalistic in tone, is intense and constantly delights. Context for the story--twenty years of allegorical history--is provided in natural, low key shorthand. The second act drops the handheld camera shtick, and it's a bit jarring to shift to what is in essence an utterly conventional 80s Unlikely Buddies action flick. This proves a bit of a disappointment; I'd have preferred the distanced, cinéma vérité model to have carried throughout the film, and for the plot to have continued building on challenging social observations and human drama rather than falling back on more shopworn narrative tropes, but I understand that this is a little more trying than most mainstream viewers want their blockbusters to be. Still, the ending is admirably inconclusive, and I'm curious whether the intent is to spur a sequel.

The most remarkable thing is the effects work. The scores of physically complex insectile humanoids are magnificent and certainly adequately repulsive, and interact with their environments almost flawlessly. The animators imbued the lead Prawn, Christopher, with gestures and tics that are remarkably expressive and humanlike considering that he has a freaking exoskeleton.

As a friend of mine pointed out, digital film is the great leveller. I'll add that $30 million is the new low budget blockbuster. Indie and semi-indie studios, particularly thanks to patronship by a fellow like producer Peter Jackson, are built on economy, inventiveness, dedication, and vision. The Day The Earth Stood Still must have blown through its preposterous $80 million on, I don't know, throngs of highly trained and well-armed security forces to keep long-loving geeks from throwing themselves on Jennifer Connelly. It certainly wasn't spent on special effects, since those amounted to Occasional Big Smooth Metal Man and A Couple Minutes of Hungry Clouds. There's no excuse for a budget that bloated to create a movie that unimpressive, and District 9 demonstrates that principle commendably.

While imperfect, District 9 is a great flick and well worth seeing for the visual effects accomplishments alone, though there's much more to love than that. (Go Weta!) It's a marvelous sign that movies like this are being thought up, and that there are studios uninterested in intellectually neutering them and gussying them up throughout production with tits and 'splosions to better appeal to the mouthbreathing masses. (Hell, that's what Michael Bay is here to do.)

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