Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9: When Pigs Fly

The title of this review won’t make sense until you see District 9 all the way through. And if you have any kind of soul or love for science fiction, you will see it all the way through, without even bathroom breaks.

The basic story has been adequately described by other reviewers. In the present day, aliens from an abandoned and apparently dysfunctional spacecraft have been living in a ghetto in Johannesburg, South Africa for twenty years. They have been living in abject poverty, eating what seems to be their favorite food on this planet, cat food.

From the start, a lot of science fiction clichés disappear, and more disappear as the movie goes on. The aliens can’t trade their tech, because most of them can’t translate it into human terms. The aliens don’t speak our languages and we can’t speak theirs, robbing us of the crappy weird-sounding English aliens have been speaking in movies for years. And yet, we can understand them and they can understand us. Their weapons, far more powerful than Earth’s regular weapons, can’t be used by humans because it only works with the aliens’ unique physiology.

You might guess that the Johannesburg location is important, and that apartheid and racial prejudice plays a big part. But early in the film, it’s clear that America’s current Middle Eastern war is involved as well. It isn’t a world government that’s policing District 9; it’s an international corporation with more than a passing resemblance to both Halliburton and OCP from RoboCop.

The plot centers on Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who in the start of the film is a middle-management suck-up, the boss’s son-in-law and a very incompetent glad-hander. He is made head of an operation to move all the aliens, called “prawn” for their resemblance to shellfish, to a new encampment. Something happens during this process, which of course is being broadcast by corporate cameras, that gets the plot going.

More than that, I will not spoil for you. I will simply observe that the RoboCop comparison hints at the story arc for the movie. A character that starts off as a comic relief incompetent becomes a lot more. A story that is shot chaotically, with many cuts between different sources (ground camera, surveillance camera, helicopter shot) still manages to make sense. And a science fiction film that shows the most intelligence of anything made in five years still has dynamic action sequences that make logical and spatial sense.

It would be too easy to say that District 9 mixes science fiction with contemporary politics. Stories like this tend to make their characters into clichés. But here, you understand and care for the characters – even though none of the actors are known here in America at this time.

It may be too much to hope for. A few weeks ago I talked about Moon as a thoughtful science fiction film with some of the feel of Silent Running and 2001. Now here comes District 9. And although hardcore fans are still angry and muttering that “Sylar” has ruined Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams remake is more exciting than the last several Paramount “official” productions.

It may be too much to hope for, but it might be possible…that a generation of people raised on good science fiction films may be making something besides imitative, superficial tripe. We’ve had three good examples this summer.

Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope appeared in 1977. After decades where the main mode of film entertainment was despair and failure, Bonnie and Clyde being a typical film of the time, it was a breath of fresh air. But Lucas, Spielberg and many other filmmakers have been stomping over the same territory for over a quarter of a century, while other kinds of stories have gone hurting. Science fiction that referred even a little to our current world and its problems were ignored in place of flat-out fantasy.

The three recent films are all much more conscious of our world. District 9 talks about racial politics, and along with Moon talks about corporate abuse of human beings. And Abrams’s Star Trek criticizes all those Trek episodes where James Kirk cut a swath across a galaxy of females with a swing of his “captain’s log,” and treated political and military problems the same way.

It may be that we’re in for a new era of exciting science fiction. And it may be that such a thing will happen only when pigs fly…but watch District 9 and you’ll see that can happen…and in a different way than you expected.