Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9 - now on DVD

District 9, Peter Jackson's low-budget sci-fi mockumentary released to theaters earlier this year, came out on DVD in the last few days. As is usual, I didn't bother to see this movie in the theaters (the I find the theater experience to be anything but pleasant) so this was the first chance I had to see this movie.

District 9 reviewed fairly well (90% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, and 81/100 score at MetaCritic). I find Peter Jackson's films to be generally enjoyable and more sci-fi is always welcome, so I went into this movie with good expectations. I wasn't disappointed, although I don't hold the movie in as high regard as the critics.

I appreciated the movie's setting; the gritty slums of Johannesburg were a welcome change from the usual aliens-invade-America; the use of native South Africans enhanced the movie's authentic feel. The realities of low-budget film-making  (a "mere" $30 million, pocket-change compared to the hundred-plus millions usually spent on summer blockbusters) resulted in a low-tech feel; the alien science may have allowed them technology ahead of ours, but not so much that it felt like the usual fantasy pabulum Hollywood feeds us). As a geek, I've always been more partial to "hard" sci-fi than space opera anyway. And as a gamer, I couldn't help but react favorably to the epic battle at the movie's climax; battle-armor with lightning and gravity guns? How could I not love it?

Unfortunately, I was less taken with the characters and pacing of the movie. Ironically, I liked the main character -Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley- less and less as he became more likable. Initially a bureaucratic, self-interested nebbish, by movie's end he has had the customary change-of-heart and sacrifices himself like the typical action-movie hero. What started as a fresh and unique take on the role of a sci-fi movie protagonist ended up completely unoriginal and predictable. Meanwhile, his CGI-rendered alien counterpart was interesting only when he remained alien; contrary to expectations, I rooted for the bipedal cockroaches as long as they remained mysterious and strange. Yet as soon as they revealed themselves to have the same emotions and motivations as the humans who oppressed them they became far less interesting. Finally, the heavies - David James as sadistic Colonel Venter, Khumbanyiwa as the Nigerian warlord and Louis Minnaar as Director Smit - were all too one-dimensional to have any appeal.

The mixed style of the movie worked against it as well. Opening as a mockumentary, it segues into a more traditionally paced film a third of the way through. The transition was somewhat jarring, and made all the more so by the shift back into "mockumentary mode" at the end of the film. The producers never seemed sure whether or not to play it straight either; was the film intended to be a straight-up action film with the usual one-liners and requisite explosions, or tongue-in-cheek message-film (the anti-racism and anti-corporatism themes came on a bit strong in either case).

Still, I have to give District 9 credit for being original in intent even if at the end it does devolve in the usual pap. It relies far more on its own style than on special effects or big-name actors and even if it does not succeed entirely that alone makes it worth watching.

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