Monday, August 10, 2009


Ambition in a movie can be a wonderful thing, it can drive the filmmakers to look past just the source material to try and help grow their film beyond what it's “supposed to be”. Ambition in a film can also become a nightmare in which the movie has trouble deciding what it wants to be and instead opts to cram more things in it than necessary.

Sadly the latter is what befell the new Peter Jackson produced Neil Blomkamp directed film District 9. This is a movie with a premise so wonderful and so forward thinking that to watch it devolve into a mess of unshaped parts was a real bum out.

The basic story is this: An alien ship arrives hovering above Johannesburg, South Africa twenty years ago. The aliens discovered inside are stuck on Earth and quickly hoarded into a man-made slum called District 9. As the movie starts Wikus Van Der Mere a kind of bumbling every-man office type (played wonderfully by Sharlto Coply) is heading a team from global superpower MGN to evict the aliens from their slum and force them into a camp outside Johannesburg.

Director Blomkamp really excels at creating the world of the aliens. They are the new poor, the new unwanted, shunned by the people of Johannesburg except for the criminals who set up shop inside District 9 in order to take advantage of the seemingly na├»ve aliens. This is where the movie works because the aliens become not so alien to you, you see them more as yet another oppressed group getting squeezed out by the hand of popular opinion and economics. Using “interview footage” with experts and a hand held camera style District 9 starts out as a near documentary style look at how hate and fear can galvanize a world that fights amongst itself to turn attention to a new enemy.

The trouble sets in as District 9 turns on a dime into a low budget action movie. All of the humanity and intimacy are suddenly drained from the film to focus on alien weapons, big shoot ‘em ups and other such action-genre fare. The final two-thirds of District 9 feels like a low budget attempt at a big budget action movie punctuated by a 20 minute torture scene of the main character.

In trying to meld together these two very separate sections of the movie the filmmakers loop in subplots that go nowhere and strain logic to the point of silliness. In some of it you can actually point to where a scene was added just cause they needed something like that in the movie.

The other problem with District 9 is pacing, as in it has none of it. Blomkamp simply can’t find the rhythm of the movie at all. The scenes sometimes work but often feel clunky and forced; especially once the “action” movie takes over. The tension in the film just builds and builds but never has that release you need to make the tension worthwhile. Blomkamp is so busy filling the soup with ingredients he forgets to let it simmer.

He also falls victim to the age-old problem that to make a movie real you need to make it brutal. There are several scenes dealing with the tragedy befalling Wikus Van Der Mere that are not only unnecessarily brutal but just unnecessary. About halfway through the movie I felt like screaming, “OK Neil, we get it, this sucks for Wikus. Move on!!!”

Due to the movies brutal nature and “indie” feel I’m sure many art house critics and self-appointed cool misers will embrace this film as some incredible experience without really paying attention to it. Part of that is because of location, people tend to be much more forgiving of films shot outside the states. I’m pretty sure that if District 9 had the same filmmakers behind it but had been shot in Chicago starring Bruce Willis the reaction would be very different.

District 9 can be commended for a great idea, really cool looking aliens and a first rate performance by star Sharlto Coply. If the movie had remained an intimate study of the relationships we were having with the aliens as seen through the main characters eyes it could have reinvented the sci-fi genre. Instead District 9 collapses under it’s own weight leaving a carnage behind it that adds up to a really disappointing film.

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