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Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

September 4, 2009
RATING: 9/10
G.I. Joe: The Rise of COBRA's budget clocked in at $175 million. The budget for the romcom The Ugly Truth was just shy of $40 million. Plotwise, those two films have nothing in common; one is a sprawling action film based on a line of toys popular in the 1980s and the other is a schlocky romance film starring two good-looking (but completely uninspiring) celebrities. People buy tickets to see G.I. Joe for the explosions and people pay for admission to The Ugly Truth because they like ogling the hot chick from Grey's Anatomy and the buff dude from 300. Neither film would purport itself to be so shallow - G.I. Joe's ad campaign pimps the film as a patriotic, high-action, geopolitical thrill ride with cutting-edge effects. The Ugly Truth was whored-out as a quirky, slightly risqué romance. The thin veils of both films' marketing campaigns were quickly shredded by critics, who decried them as vacuous and formulaic shit. Simply by accepting films of such ilk, audience members are reduced to a theater full of slack-jawed Bevis and Buttheads, interested only in explosive violence and superficial sex served up in glossy and grotesque abundance.

Vapid decadence is nothing new to Hollywood, but it is especially relevant to highlight G.I. Joe and The Ugly Truth because they were both in theaters when District 9 (D9) opened. The comparison is notable because on every level, District 9 single handedly demolished those two films' cinematic aims by offering up a believable (albeit brief) love story, intense action, flawless special effects and a completely original take on what happens when aliens arrive and cultures clash. Better yet, despite a massive viral marketing campaign, loads of visual effects and a large scale production, District 9 cost $145 million LESS to create than G.I. Joe and almost $10 million less than The Ugly Truth. Director Neill Blomkamp's knowledge of digital effects is well matched with his directorial skills, to the point that D9 viewers may indeed be slack-jawed, but this time for all the right reasons.



One of Blomkamp's talents lies in knowing how to make all of his visual effects appear flawless. It is a challenge to discern which of the picture's shots were filmed on sets and which shots consist of digital effects. Two of Blomkamp's aliens, Christopher Johnson and his son, seem so real and lifelike that, in spite of their horrid otherworldly appearances, they become more emotionally resonant than most of the peripheral human characters in the film. Those interested in seeing Blomkamp's talent on display and in getting a feel for District 9's look and pace should check out his short film, Alive In Joburg, which is available on YouTube. Though the aliens look different, D9 is based on the Joberg short and the latter is definitely worth watching.



The disparate cinematic influences of District 9 are as far-reaching as Star Wars and as close to home as reality television. The film begins with a series of documentary-style interviews and clips of video footage detailing the history of the aliens' arrival above South Africa and initial rescue by humans from their incapacitated and seemingly inoperable ship. Over the course of the next 20 years relations between humans and aliens (unaffectionately dubbed "Prawns" due to their resemblance to insects) deteriorate to the point that the Prawns are forced to live in a fenced-in slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg known as District 9. When, due to years of violent clashes between humans and Prawns, even the containment of the aliens inside District 9 becomes unacceptable for the humans in Johannesburg, the South African government decides to move the Prawns to an internment camp hundreds of miles from the city. A Halliburton-esque company called Multi-National United is charged with the task of relocation and, in footage that is more documentary than summer blockbuster in style, the audience is introduced to the film's protagonist, Wikus, a rank-and-file a simpleton in charge of the operation.

District 9 was filmed in a real neighborhood in Soweto and the conditions of the location are frightening both to the characters and the viewer. Tsotsi, another incredible South African film, was many Western viewers' first exposure to the slums of Johannesburg, which are rarely depicted in an honest way on film, and District 9 picks up where that film left off. As Wikus callously kicks the Prawns out of their homes, Blomkamp's story parallels real events from the same neighborhood where D9 was filmed, when the South African government forced residents out of the slums and into government housing tracts.



The film really kicks into high gear when, through his characteristic bungling, Wikus accidentally sets off a series of events that come to pit him against his employer and lead him to emphasize with the Prawns. What starts off as a sweeping sci-fi allegory for Apartheid-era South Africa soon evolves (or, as some critics have lamented, devolves) into an intense and stunning action film. It would be unfair to reveal any more of District 9's plot, but suffice it to say that both those interested in explosions and those interested in gripping drama ought to be thoroughly satiated by the time the credits roll.

There has been a fair amount of critical response to District 9 decrying the film for narrowing its focus from a sweeping socio-political allegory and morphing into a deceptively simple action film. Many critics' beef with Blomkamp's film is that it doesn't offer any solutions to the real-world problems faced by people living in poverty and looked down upon by society. Those looking for answers to those global concerns will definitely not find them in D9 and to his credit Blomkamp is wise enough to avoid that kind of cute, preachy resolution. An ET-esque ending, drenched in kumbayas and governmental changes of heart, would be disingenuous when set against the razor-wire realities of the modern Third World. Freeing Nelson Mandela and ending Apartheid represented change, but not necessarily improvement, for the lives of South Africans, most of whom still face poverty and isolation in their own country. Much of what truly seems to be underlying the criticism of District 9's conclusion is that the story's main character, Wikus, is not the film's true hero. Moreover, Wikus, who represents humanity, is a self-consumed and cowardly character for almost every minute he is on the screen; the result is a good long look in the mirror for us all, an angle that seems to have escaped critics who decried the film as losing focus or devolving into a simplistic shoot-em-up action flick. Even the typical and precious "change of heart" moment that leads to the conclusion of D9 is suspect because viewers are visually forced to question Wikus' very humanity.

What District 9 does offer viewers is a complex, entertaining and challenging piece of cinema. The film is dramatic, horrific, intense and moving and should appeal to fans of political dramas and revolutionary cinema as much as to fans of sci-fi and action movies. Be warned though, anyone who enters District 9 will be unable to resist, for days afterward, thinking about and discussing Blomkamp's brilliant and brave cinematic gem.

TRAILER: www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6PDlMggROA

SEE ALSO: www.d-9.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LAS’s editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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