Thomthumb84's Blog

Film Review: District 9

Posted in Film Review by thomthumb84 on August 20, 2010

Preconceptions

I had reservations about District 9 for some time. Having read around it and seen a couple of adverts I thought it looked a bit flaky. For a start it looked cheap. The adverts give you only these brief glances at the aliens and even these looked a bit crappy. There was a sense, as there are in a lot of sci-fi or horror movies, that they just did not have the funding to do anything brilliant with the effects so this was replaced with tactical camera shots and the odd bit of creative lighting.

I also didn’t like the idea that much of the film was presented as ‘live footage’ or ‘CCTV’. Apart from a few exceptions – such as The Blair Witch Project this, again, always looks cheap. Not to mention the fact that I seldom feel engaged when this technique is used.

When I watch a movie I like to feel as though I am observing a scene which is currently taking place in front of me – it is happening for the first time and the scenario taking place is a current event. But with ‘live footage’ etc I am constantly reminded that – regardless of whether it is true or not – this is not happening now and as such I lose concentration.

The plot sounded a bit loose as well. The fundamental idea of aliens arriving on earth facing discrimination by humanity sounded interesting (if not borrowing somewhat from Alien Nation I thought?). But then the further plot line of the guy who starts to become one of them? Sounds like a step too far – a rather unnecessary and thinly disguised  ‘day-in-my-shoes’ sort of approach that was already struggling under social and political metaphors.

But.. having said all of this I actually saw it for the first time the other day and really rather liked it. And, having spent a good four paragraphs relating my preconceived concerns about the movie I should probably get round to explaining how wrong they were.

One: FX

I’m really quite curious to find out why the trailers for District 8 failed to give me a good impression of the level of FX quality and substance in the movie. While the trailer gave us the odd shot the movie was topped full of alien footage, great laser beam guns and all kinds of other cool shit.

While thinking about it last night I wondered whether the editors had decided to only give a teaser of the footage on offer – a bit like in a superhero movie where you can get fans properly lathered up with nothing more than a hint of a Captain America flag or thor’s hammer – but then who gave a shit about this movie to begin with?

I don’t think anyone would have seen these lightening fast shots and gone – wow! I can’t wait to see more of those blurry things on the horizon. The other possibility that comes to mind is that they were concerned about repelling an audience who are already over-saturated with CGI effects.

But then this is quite a different kind of movie than your regular CGI affair and movies like this are actually a perfect example of how it can be used to its full advantage. The plot demands that the human actors relate to the aliens on a physical basis  – they have to converse and interact with them constantly – and in full daylight. As such other forms of fx would of looked terrible. Look at the kind of movies where puppets or animatronics have been used (I am sure there is some difference here between one and the other) – Jaws, ET, Alien(s). How frequently do you actually see the creatures in the movies? And how much of them do you physically see? Practically none.

But the plot of this placed so much emphasis on the relationship between alien and human that you had to see them a lot – both in the day and night. As such CGI was the perfect tool. And it actually looked great – the physical design of the aliens looked ‘realistic’ (by that I mean they looked like they would actually exist – does that’s sound too geeky?). They also moved well – their mannerisms and so on had human aspects but also some ‘alien’ difference that felt like something nearer to those of a cockroach.

And this was important to the plot – they had to look and act like integration between species was a possibility while at the same time being different enough for the idea to be unsettling. These aliens have a vaguely humanoid form but also share quite a lot of characteristics with cockroaches – the perfect combination of pleasing shape from afar but disturbing up close.

Two: ‘Live Footage’

Yeh. Not that bad actually. I imagine the thinking behind using ‘live footage’ was to keep the audience convinced of the authenticity of the experience and in this it serves the movie quite well. The other thing – which, once again, the trailer, failed to report – was that the whole movie wasn’t shot in this way. It was used selectively to deliver a different perspective or set the tone.

For instance, the first twenty or thirty minutes provide footage from a documentary on how the alien appeared and also introduces the lead character. This works – we get the context of the situation without having to be reminded this is a film. Following this we move away from stock footage and begin to use a more classical filming style which allows us to relate to the lead better while also including a few news-report-type shots to provide third perspectives.

The ‘live footage’ material is used sparingly and this makes it an addition to the plotline instead of taking it over. So, not a problem.

Third: Plot

As I said I like the fundamental plot here – it shares a certain area with movies like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that take a political stance while providing thoughtful political commentary. Humans discriminating against aliens (might we say refugees?) – based in a country (South Africa) known not only for a history of racial intolerance and severe inequality but one that is also facing intense levels of pressure to deal with an influx of refugees from another land (Zimbabwe). This is interesting stuff that and the means by which it is expressed works very well – as with Zimbabweans these aliens face discrimination not only from white authority figures but also from the black community too.

But this metaphor can only work so far. And moving away from the interesting similarities to South Africa’s own politics it annoyed me that the integration between alien and human is so quickly glazed over.

The aliens have all of this great technology and it is made clear that the government is eager to learn how to use it. We also learn that at least some of the aliens are pretty intelligent. Why is there no representative body on the part of the aliens?

You would have thought that even with the difficult social and political environment there would be attempts on the part of the humans to engage with the aliens – negotiate terms or expand understanding. This appears to be lacking. There also appear to be no aliens working for the humans – sort of operating with them. This is a shame and misses the opportunity to explore an interesting angle.

But I guess I have to remember this is not a political/social mind experiment but a movie. And the fundamental plot does provide a good context for the action of the movie. The plot is, of course, one for an action movie and as such it didn’t exactly blow me away. But it plays to its strengths and the fight scenes really make it what it is. Much is made of the cool guns and gadgets on offer and for a fan of the sci-fi tech of Ridley Scott movies this definitely kept me glued.

A few hints (‘back in three years’) seem to set the scene for a sequel but at the same time I feel that it would be difficult to push forwards. There are possibilities but they would most likely have to go for scenes on a far larger scale and that would damage the things which appeal to me about the movie.

Good Movie

It’s a good movie and worth seeing. In a certain sense I do feel like I would have enjoyed an examination of the political and social consequences of such a situation more. But then that is not what this movie is. It’s an action movie. And in this it succeeds. If there is a sequel I’d love to check it out.

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