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Friday, April 2, 2010
Close encounters with intergalactic arthropodan welfare bums
In the immortal words of fictional rock stars Spinal Tap, it's such a fine line between stupid and clever. Further proof of this dictum comes this month from sci-fi flick "District 9," a South-African production featuring the talents of New Zealand's WETA digital effects studio and produced by Peter Jackson.
Director Neill Blomkamp starts his film off on the clever side of things, postulating an alien invasion that's not your standard "War of the Worlds"-type unstoppable menace, but just a derelict spacecraft full of intergalactic boat people. Give us your tired, huddled masses of insectoids yearning to be welfare bums . . . it's a whole new spin on the idea of illegal "aliens."
Blomkamp, drawing on the grand old tradition of George A. Romero ("Night of the Living Dead"), mixes raw genre movie pulp with some sly socio-political commentary. When a massive spaceship appears above Johannesburg, South Africa, and dumps around a million malnourished, crustacean-like aliens into the care of the state, it becomes a humanitarian crisis that threatens to spin out of control.
The aliens are initially herded into a Gaza-Strip-like shanty-town, District 9, which is sealed off behind barbed wire and security cameras. The aliens — or "prawns," as the humans derisively call them — are left in this squalor, serviced only by Nigerian gangs (who else?) that deal in weapons, prostitutes and cat food, the prawns' prized delicacy.
When local residents finally riot against the alien presence, the government brings in a private contractor, Multi National United, to do the dirty work of evicting the aliens and re-locating them far away. (Blomkamp never uses the word "township," but the apartheid context is unmistakable.)
That's when we meet our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a dweeby manager at MNU who is in charge of the eviction operation. Much dark humor is found in Wikus' attempts to finagle the prawns into signing the required forms, but when he gets accidentally infected with some alien DNA and starts transforming into a prawn, the film detours into David Cronenberg-style body horror. There's quite a bit of gnarly shredded flesh, exploding heads, and gory surgery for what is only a PG-12 film.
By mid-point, the film's cynical satire of apartheid policies, corporate ruthlessness, and the facade of U.N.-backed human rights has degenerated into just another endless shoot-'em-up. It has become almost impossible to make a sci-fi film these days that doesn't spend its last 30 minutes in a multiple-orgasm roar of screaming, shooting and shattering explosions, and "District 9" jettisons all its cool ideas in favor of adhering to this formula. The use of genre cliches — from the battle-'bot straight out of "Transformers," to the vaguely ethnic lament on the soundtrack — only adds to the feeling of cop-out.
Also problematic is Blomkamp's reliance on extremely shaky hand-held camera-work, a style that has long since worn out its welcome. True, the film is aspiring to a mock-doc look, with fake news broadcasts and security-camera POVs grounding this story in the cinematic vocabulary of the "real." But unlike "Paranormal Activity," Blomkamp doesn't stick to his own rules, eventually using all sorts of character-perspective shots and pretty much tossing the documentary approach. This isn't a crime, but it makes you wonder why you have to suffer through all that shaky camera-work in the first place.
The ultimate message of "District 9" — that we have to learn to respect the other, that we should have a healthy mistrust of the military-corporate state, and that our human form is something separate from who we actually are — is not all that different from "Avatar," but I suspect the lack of New Age tribalism will prevent Blomkamp's film from attracting the crossover, nonfanboy demographic that turned out for "Avatar."
Actually, one could say the ultimate message of both films is that he who kicks the most ass wins. Such a fine line, as Spinal Tap said.