Monday, August 17, 2009

To Walk A Mile In Someone Else's Weaponized Mecha Shoes

This is going to be a review of Neill Blomkamp's District 9. Eventually. I'm going to assume you have seen the movie. There will be spoilers. Eventually. The first part is about the build up to the release that's what she said so the spoilers won't be for a while. Okay, carry on.

I have not had the love affair with D9, in the months leading up to its release, that so many have had. When I first saw the trailer, I was of course excited- to be even teased with a glimpse of a movie that looked so raw and real, that was science fiction, that was about something gave my nerdy little heart a thrill. It's been such a rarity. To find these types of works I have mostly had to look back, and while I have a love of doing so, of watching and reading old and older science and speculative fiction, it felt like a jolt of promise. I looked forward to it.

Then there was the IGN fiasco. I learned of the District 9 contest through io9. It was stunning and disappointing, to say the least, that an exciting opportunity like the one presented by IGN was open only to males aged 18-24. The fact that they then created a seperate, but equal, contest for women just added insult to injury, and I found my excitement for the movie suddenly diminished. I had been happily participating in the viral campaign, had signed up both with the MNU (which I now feel bad about, I admit, I swear I tendered my resignation as soon as I left the theater, I swear) and to George the Alien's blog and newsletter. The depth of the world that the film had created was fascinating and rewarding, the use of Aliens to explore themes of humanity- a common trope but one worthy of revisiting, I feel, in fact necessary to revisit- had drawn me in and suddenly I felt expelled.

Now, I understand fully that no one who made the film had anything to do with creating the contest or its rules, but that wasn't the point. Someone down the line should have been aware and responsible enough to say, "Hey, this thing we're doing, you know it's completely disenfranchising an entire gender, right? Which isn't really in keeping with the point of the movie. Right?"

Right? Well, apparently not. At Comic Con, surrounded by FOR HUMANS ONLY signs and staying in a hotel with a large white armored car parked outside, I sadly found my enthusiasm tempered by feelings of resentment. I wasn't welcome. The signs may as well have said FOR BOYS ONLY. A little corner of the convention that would otherwise have been just so cool was now the He-Man Woman-Hater's Club, and I was annoyed. I had other things to focus on, though. Other really super awesome things.

Like Kick Ass. So I made due.

The result of this sense of alienation, however, was that I stopped following the movie in the weeks before opening. I saw no footage, I read no blogs. And when the movie was released, I avoided reviews. I didn't want to see it with anyone else's impressions of it in my mind. Happily distanced enough from the online community's D9 fervor, I went to see the movie with the expectation of being told an important story, well, and the expectation that the movie would actually meet that first expectation.

Which it did.

South Africa is a volatile, deeply complicated place to set any story, let alone one about Apartheid. Upon hearing that the film was set in Johannesburg, I was skeptical. Did the filmmakers think the audience would be unable to draw the intended parallels if the movie were set elsewhere? If the battle against the evil of prejudice is universal, couldn't it have been set anywhere, and the same parallels have been drawn?

Perhaps, but having see it, I am convinced that South Africa was the best choice of backdrop for this story, because prejudice is universal. Even those who have been so horribly degraded, abused, and repressed by a ruling crowd will do the same to a group they are afraid of or find inferior. The movie also offers an intimate connection with a city many are unfamiliar with, a gift to the audience from Blomkamp, who is of course a native.

The use of docu-style interviews and 'news' footage cleverly cements the world as fact for the viewer. The set up is quick, effective, and engrossing. By the time the camera deviates from its role as a character, representing the POV of the cameraman being dragged along, the audience no longer requires the buffer. We are the witnesses, now, we don't need someone else holding the camera for us. This transition for the viewer I found to be particularly well handled by Blomkamp, an organic and unobtrusive shift.

When Wikus leaves the labs, we leave the world of surveillance videos and hand-held cameras, although periodically through the rest of the action we are given glimpses through these eyes, because when Wikus leaves the lab he is our hero, where before he was a documentary subject.

The use of Wikus as our everyman is as conflicting and intelligent a choice as I've seen since Friedkin's hero Richard Chance in To Live and Die in LA. Wikus is not particularly likable. He's a bit wheedling, weak. He's a bit of a coward, and he doesn't display any impressive levels of intellect. He's middle management. And as if that weren't uninspiring enough, he's a racist. Sure, he's essentially harmless. He's trying to get through a job he has thanks to his father in law. He loves his wife. He's not a bad guy, but he sure as shit doesn't inspire much confidence, either in his superiors or the audience.

Yet you feel for Wikus. Intellectually, you know the type. He's only as racist as everybody else, he has no special malice in him. When he is forced to pull the trigger on the 'Praun' in the weapons-testing lab, he becomes us- sure, he can be racist. I mean, they're giant bugs. But he's not evil. When it's staring him the face, when he's been victimized, he knows the difference between good and evil. Being pejorative is one thing. Being physically violent is another. Yet even then Wikus doesn't bridge the two as being complimentary aspects of the same wrong.

The movie is a thick and saddening sedentary of wrongs, set down by all groups from all corners, that have built upon each other until they form what appears to be an insurmountable bedrock upon which the story is built.

Admirably, Blomkamp allows Wikus, one of our two protagonists, to remain a racist coward until the eleventh hour. After everything Wikus and 'Christopher Johnson' go through in the MNU's basement, you would think that camaraderie would be cemented. It isn't. The instant Wikus's expectations are betrayed, that the conditions of the deal change, he flies off the handle and makes a very bad move. The best that can be argued of his actions is that his rage does transcend racism. Specieism. Specism. However you'd like to put it. The violence he enacts has nothing to do with prejudice and everything to do with panic and anger- it is deplorable, but for different reasons than his actions before were deplorable. So that's progress, right?

The escalating action (which is badass like woah wtf and easy to follow holy cow) leads us to a moment that I, personally, hope desperately for in essentially every movie I've ever seen: The moment the hero takes up the responsibility of his role by sitting down in his single-pilot operated mobile suit, emerges from the wreckage, and kicks some ass. Blomkamp gave me this. He gave it to me and then took it the fuck away.

Wikus turns around and uses his ridiculously powerful, one of a kind mecha to run away, abandoning 'Christopher Johnson', abandoning his only chance at being saved from the infection that's transforming his body. The bastard turns and runs, and we are...

Maybe not mad. But disappointed. Has Wikus learned nothing? Has he really not found his balls, after everything? One selfish cowardly act after another leading to this supreme let down. We feel betrayed, because as impossible as the situation would be, we all hope that if it were us- as Wikus is us- we would step up.

Which he then does, spectacularly. Another transition that earns Blompkamp kudos is the progression of the film from clever social commentary to action flick. Given the inherent violence of the situation to begin with, the all out fracas that fills the last quarter of the movie feels natural. Violence begets violence. As the stakes for the players raise and their wants become increasingly overlapping and intertwined, the level of the violence, it stands to reason, escalates.

Then at the end, we're put back where we were at the beginning, in those same roles. When the shockwave from the mothership's thrusters roll through the city of Johannesburg, shattering every pane of glass it shudders, we are incrimentally pulled away, and away, and away, back to a distance where we see events through tv cameras and interviews. We're physically back to where we were, but we are fundamentally changed for having gotten so close that the way we see what we're shown, now, is different.

Well met, District 9.

There is then, of course, the matter of the button. We know, if the aliens are at all a more honorable people than we, that 'Christopher Johnson' will be back in three years. He promised. We do not know in what force he will arrive. We do not know if the aliens have a capacity for forgiveness great enough to rival what has been done to them. We do not know if 'Christopher Johnson' will survive the journey, either- the retelling may be left to his son.

What we do know is, Wikus now lives among the aliens, weeding through a consumer society's offal to find scraps with which to construct small, beautiful tokens, promises of his own to his wife.

It is with this final image that two things happen: The movie ends, and everyone in the audience says, to the person next to them, "Sequel." To which I say:

Please, no. That's all right, thank you. Not necessary. I have come up with so many scenarios in my head in the twenty four hours since I saw the movie, that a sequel holds very little potential but to be disappointing. Particularly for movie so well stylized and carefully constructed, a sequel will have many more opportunities to be bad than good. Can it be done, and well? Sure. I have faith in the creative team that, should they decide to make a sequel, it would be done with the same conviction and creativity as District 9. Hopefully that won't be for a while, though, if ever.

So, I would recommend seeing it. It's pretty damn good. It has a lot to say, and it says it well, in a way that is engaging and speaks to the most, and least, human parts of us.


Karen said...

Good review, you pretty much said it all!

EruditeChick said...

Why, thank you, kindly!