Some of you may have noticed that District 9 was up for the Best Screenplay Golden Globe lat night. It (spoiler I suppose) didn’t win, which is a real shame (really, does anyone in their right mind honestly think Avatar is a better movie than D9? I certainly don’t.) In honor of of what I hope will be many major award wins, I thought I’d do a quick and personal retrospective on what I firmly believe was the best film of 2009, and quite possibly the entire 2000s decade. Let’s take this one point at a time. (And it should be noted I’m going to assume that you have already seen the movie and have a basic understanding 0f the plot and characters; if you don’t, stop reading now and go see the damn movie! Its fantastic, and really should be seen completely unspoiled.)
The writing: This might be the strongest of the movie’s many strengths (along with the acting, which we’ll get to later). Now, it IS admittedly a bit hard to separate what was written in the screenplay from the (fairly large from what I understand) amount of improvising that the actors, especially Sharlto Copley, did, but I still think its worth discussing the characters and characterizations that allowed the actors to do such great pieces of improv work.
Although there are several important peripheral characters, the film really centers on two characters: Wikus, the white collar MNU employee in charge of relocating the Prawn aliens to District 10, and ‘Christopher Johnson,’ the English name assigned to the main alien character, whose focus is on protecting his son, and finding a way to return to his homeworld.
Wikus is in no way a sci-fi action movie hero. He’s not even a generic everyman from this sort of genre. He’s a very small, rather mousy man who keeps his head down and seems to enjoy his white collar desk job. He is perfectly content to spend his life moving up through the ranks of the MNU corporation, and then (one presumes) collect his pension thereafter. He’s not a chosen one, he’s not a disaffected bad boy/rebel, he doesn’t even HATE the Prawns–he just doesn’t see them as human (which they aren’t) or on the same level as humans (which almost no one else on earth seems to, either.) Basically, the guy is Bill Lumberg from Office Space, and he is your hero.
His character arc is one of the best and most moving I’ve ever seen in a movie, and also one of the most real. He doesn’t go from “evil agent of the corporation” to “alien sympathizer and freedom fighter” like in Avatar, or Dances With Wolves. He doesn’t even become all that friendly with Christopher Johnson or the Prawns beyond what is expedient for him. And most of all, he doesn’t go from paper pushing office worker to super-awesome-badass buttkicking hero. While it is true he gets more than a few badass moments (what kind of an action movie would it be if he didn’t, after all?) he remains true to his character the whole time: squeemish, and a bit cowardly. He’s forced into what heroics he accomplishes by his circumstances, and his own self-interest, not some moralistic, overarching sense of righteousness. I find that incredibly refreshing. And, at least to me, that doesn’t take anything away from his heroism–in fact, it makes it all the grander. That this perfectly normal, perfectly unremarkable man could dig inside of himself and find the resources he does to not only continue, but to fight, and triumph, in the face of everything that opposes him, and fight not for (as I said) some high-minded ideal, but simply to return his life back to the way it was…that was very moving to me. It worked.
Christopher Johnson is in the opposite camp–he is one of the aliens that people like Wikus are in charge of containing and controlling. He’s not like the other aliens, though–he’s a father for one thing (and a quite caring and dedicated one at that) and he also thinks. That is, he makes plans that are intricate, require deep preparation and understanding, and demonstrate dedication to something besides basic needs and comforts and the immediate future. None of the other aliens seem to show the slightest inclination towards this sort of metathinking/planning.
Some people actually cite this as a gaffe or oversight on the movie’s part–if, as explained by the movie, all of the aliens on the ship are merely a comparatively stupid prole class of workers used to taking their orders from a higher caste, then how is it that Christoper Johnson–alone among these aliens–has developed the plan and technology that he does? Its a fair question, and one that the movie never explains or even addresses. I have read it theorized that the aliens are semi-akin to insects, and that, in the absence of a ‘leader,’ one will inevitably be born a generation or two later. This makes sense to me, and seems fairly plausible enough. It is not established if Christopher was one of the original aliens rescued, or even what the gestation/youth period is for these aliens, so its not outside the realm of possibility that he is one of a new ‘leader’ class that this isolated population of Prawns is evolving. I have no idea if this satisfies any of the people questioning this aspect of the movie, or if its even close to anything the creators had in mind, but unless we’re provided more details or explanations in the sequel, it works well enough for me.
Direction: No word comes to mind but “brilliant.” This movie looks and feels exactly like a documentary when it needs to, but it also refuses to be limited by that, and doesn’t mind very close, intimate scenes, or big, grand action/effects sequences either. I read that some critics felt the transition between these styles was rather jarring, but I personally did not have this problem (and neither did anyone I saw the movie with.) The transitions are neither telegraphed or explained; they simply change as the scene requires. I think this was the perfect way to handle things, and I can’t think of any scenes I would have shot a different way.
Another point in the plus column of the documentary-style part of the movie is that the director was kind enough not to make use of “shaky-cam” effects, and managed to keep the bobbing to a minimum while still maintaining the rough, documentary feel. Very well done.
Acting: Superb. Not one bad performance in the lot. The only small ding against it would be the complaint that David James, as the MNU Colonel Koobus, was just a hair too mustache-twirlingly evil for the hyperreal feel of the rest of the movie. Had he toned it down a notch or two, and made a slightly more believable (if not sympathetic) villain, it would have made the movie that much better.
Special kudos need to go out to Jason Cope, who not only played Christopher Johnson, but every other alien in the movie as well (with the exception of Christopher’s son.) In my mind, he’s right up there with Andy Serkis as one of the great CGI actors; he not only gave each Prawn an individual personality, he genuinely made me *care* about them. All without speaking a word (of English.) Speaking of which, I don’t know who was responsible for creating and recording the aliens’ clicking language, but holy shit what a wonderful, wonderful job. Its so expressive I think I could have watched the movie and understood most of it even without the subtitles.
Of course, this section would not be complete without a huge, HUGE tip of my hat to Sharlto Copley, who played Wikus Van De Merwe. This man had never studied acting, never improved, never even set foot in front of a camera before…and then he comes out and throws down a performance like this?
I think this gentleman missed his true calling somewhere down the line.
He is absolutely astounding. I’m not going to say much more than that, only because if I get started, I’m going to gush for another 1500 words. I don’t know what he did (if I did I’d be acting in a movie myself right now instead of writing about him), but whatever it was, I was with him–and Wikus–every single step of the way through this movie. The truest example of this is that, when Wikus finally snaps and cold-cocks Christopher Johnson, rather than being angry at Wikus, I was just sad for him. I didn’t like or endorse what Wikus did there, but I completely understood and sympathized with WHY he did it. That is absolutely unprecedented for me, to really and truly sympathize with a character like his, performing an act like that. Just amazing.
The effects: All I can say is, HOW much did they make this film for again? Not since Sunshine have I seen a film do such great special effects on an indie budget. Everything is absolutely excellent, from the close up creature CGI, to the long, majestic shots of the space ship, to the mech and the weapon effects…it all just WORKS. Nothing stands out, or seems out of place, which is exactly how effects should be–so seamlessly integrated into the world of the movie that you don’t even think of them as “effects”–they’re just there.
Closing thoughts: District 9 is my choice for best movie of 2009, quite possibly my choice for best movie of the decade, and has become one of my personal favorites of all time–I place it right up there alongside such luminaries as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Alien and The Matrix. Its a movie with a strong moral message that doesn’t get shoved down your throat, but nevertheless stays with you long after the credits have rolled. I can’t wait for the sequel, or to see what all the talented people involved in this project move onto next.