Friday, August 28, 2009
It's all about expectations, isn't it? Last week I went into A Perfect Getaway knowing that there was a 50-50 chance I was going to hate it. Turned out to be one one of my favorite movies of the year. This week we went to see District 9, a movie that I at first had no interest in, but went to see because it's been almost universally praised. Expectations went waaay up. Sort of disappointed in the movie.
It gets about 85% better in the second half, but I really struggled with the first part. Partly because of the fake-documentary style of narration that I'm so bored with in general, but mostly because I hated pretty much everyone in the film.
To be fair, I think that was the reaction I was supposed to have. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, is a snivelling, ineffective bureaucrat who's been handed a sensitive, important assignment because he's married to the boss' daughter. There are a couple of affable guys in his immediate support team, but we don't get a lot of them and - even though they're kind of charming - they're still bigoted assholes. The rest of the humans are even worse.
I was predisposed not to like humanity in this film. It all started with the viral marketing campaign that posted "Humans Only" signs everywhere to get people curious. But the signs gave me a horrible feeling every time I saw them. They reminded me of the "Whites Only" signs that we used to have in this country and my distaste for them was only diluted by the knowledge that they were persecuting a fictional race. I'm willing to give the marketing people the benefit of the doubt and accept that maybe the signs were supposed to elicit that reaction from me, but rather than make me want to see the movie, it made me want to stay away from it even more.
In case you don't know what I'm talking about, District 9 is the story of an alien mothership that breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens - cruelly nicknamed "prawns" by humanity because of their appearance - have been forced to live in a shanty town called District 9 for the last 20 years, but now the humans are sick of them and want to relocate them to a concentration camp well outside the city limits. Wikus Van De Merwe is given the responsibility of coordinating the move.
Without any likable humans in the movie I thought maybe we're supposed to relate to the aliens, but the film does a great job of making them just as abhorrent. One of the human characters offers a theory that the aliens are mostly made up of some kind of worker class and without knowing more about the aliens' culture, that makes some sense. Most of the aliens are brutish and violent. Maybe they've become that way after 20 years in District 9. We're not told. All we really know is that most of them are just as nasty as the humans.
Thankfully, we eventually do meet an honorable character. He's an alien named "Christopher Johnson" who - with his small son and another alien conspirator - has been working to get his people off Earth. The plan goes wrong however and one of the results is that Wikus is contaminated with alien DNA that begins to transform him into an alien. This is good news for his employer, a weapons manufacturer that would love to figure out how to duplicate the aliens' sophisticated weaponry, but can't because the weapons only respond to alien DNA. Wikus has transformed enough that he can operate the weapons, so now his bosses want to cut him apart and see if they can replicate the effect themselves.
This is where the movie starts getting good. Wikus is still a selfish prick - everything he does is in his own interest - but I loved Christopher and his son and really wanted to see them help their people escape. If they have to help Wikus in order to do that, that's okay too. Once the film kicks into action-mode, it's awesome. Christopher and Wikus have to infiltrate a high-security government facility in order to steal the key to Christopher's plan. There's lots of running, chasing, fighting, shooting, blowing stuff up - all with cool, alien weaponry - and several oh-crap-how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-that moments.
Of course, the big question for me was whether or not Wikus would ever change and do something - if not entirely heroic - at least unselfish. I thought he had at one point towards the end, but after the movie my brother Dave pointed out that there was a large element of self-preservation even in that act. I have to forget about Wikus. I just don't like that guy.
Christopher and his boy are the only people to connect to in the film, but there's plenty of them in the second half to make that part exciting and tension-filled. I don't understand everything that they're doing - the movie leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how the aliens wound up in their predicament, how exactly Christopher's plan is supposed to work, and why a hitch in it results in Wikus' transformation - but I understand a father-son relationship and I understand wanting to help your people get out of a horrible situation. And ultimately, that was enough.
Three out of five alien battlesuits.