Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe Just Avoid District 9

Is there anyone out there besides me who didn't particularly like District 9?

I know Joanne Kaufman over at Wall Street Journal didn't. Neither did Kyle Smith at New York Post (and I love his "kill-or-be-krill" jest) or J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader. Heck, even Ebert and I both have the same dislikes with the same movie for once. But for the most part, their critiques are brief and don't really give details. So here I go.

Let's start with what should be appreciated. Because really, you've gotta hand it to an August blockbuster that grosses over $35 million in its first weekend when it's got unknowns for a cast, relatively simple set production, not based on a comic book, video game or novel and its only real name credit is a man at the helm with a name stamp somewhere in the last ten years of pop entertainment. One film tried to do that earlier last year: Cloverfield. Like District 9, it was plenty hyped with a cryptic trailer as well as extensive viral marketing in addition to billboard signs. It came out at an unconventional time for a big-budget movie, it had the potential to spurt out spin-off films or tie-ins, it was about aliens, and it was produced by J.J. Abrams from the hit shows Alias and Lost. And nobody seemed to care about Cloverfield.

But at least Cloverfield's story lost its pretentiousness quickly. Cloverfield wanted to take the "alien blockbuster"/"disaster movie" genre* (see also: Independence Day; see also: Armageddon) and deconstruct it a bit; instead of big names starring as scientists or military personnel - usually men - who save their estranged families and the world, it told a street-level story of snobby teenagers who get trapped in the big mess of things, and all of them wind up dead by the end - including the guy who saves the girl, plus the girl. By itself, that's pretty predictable, but not usually in an alien blockbuster. Cloverfield also broke conventional norms by being shot cinema vérité style to give the film a more realistic look and feel. However much Abrams wanted to break from normal alien movie narratives, though, none of those methods employed ever got in the way of actually telling the story (unless, of course, you didn't like its predictability or you were one of those people who got vertigo in the theater from the HandiCam style and blew chunks).

District 9 has several similarities. The vague trailer teased audiences with the name "Peter Jackson" for months preceding its release and was greatly hyped with billboards and Web sites. It plays out documentary style, talking heads and all. I believe that it also tries to break away from conventional movie sci-fi structures.

In some ways, it succeeds, because District 9 certainly raises a lot of interesting stuff. Take, for instance (spoilers ahoy), the allegorical nods to apartheid, the "final solution" to move them all to a giant concentration camp of tents, or the protagonist's progression from small tuna working for the Man and leading a basically uninteresting life to - contrary to how most of these alien movie heroes react - become progressively cruel and selfish as he inches closer to his objective, even to the point of becoming cowardly and turning tail running during the final battle. It certainly raises interesting questions about humanity as an identity, and the film does a great job of realistically portraying how the world might actually react to an alien immigration. There are some moments in the film that had me gripped to my seat, like when the scientists force the protagonist to kill an alien. The film even has a touching father-son story. I can get teary-eyed at few things, father-son stories being one of them - and mostly in weak/simple films like Signs or The Lion King.

But from there, the film goes nowhere. And that makes me more frustrated with the film rather than hate it. As soon as the credits started rolling and I wanted to talk about these things, the longer I reflected on the film, the more it started to flake away and fall apart. And I don't mean story-wise. The story, when isolated and packaged for a Reader's Digest version, is pretty straightforward. But the internal logic itself doesn't work; several parts of the story rely on seemingly arbitrary plot points or devices that are either entirely unexplained or rely on heavy interpretive analysis from the audience. I can definitely handle the latter (The Fountain is my favorite movie, and I never see it the same way twice, so I'm not unfamiliar with films that demand a lot from the viewer). But the former aggravates me to no end, and it was my main complaint with Slumdog Millionaire (and I'm the only one I know who disliked that film, other than Salman Rushdie).

Like (again, spoilers) when the protagonist is wheeled into a room full of dead aliens (some in pieces, and a talking-head shot explains that no human has ever bonded to an alien and lived. This made me think that the room was full of failed metamorphosed human-aliens, and yet this was never explained. A friend later postulated that the room was actually full of aliens that had been kidnapped and subjected to testing. I'm open to that possibility, except the movie didn't provide much evidence to fully argue that, either. The movie had moments where you had to infer what was going on, which I'm usually fine with, except that too many times I had to say, "Well, maybe this, maybe that" instead of "The film gives A, B and C, so therefore this is what happened." Too many "maybe's" and your "clever" story starts to look like a spaghetti sieve. And I wasn't surprised by any of the "twists," including the transformation from alien to human.

And not being surprised by District 9 is funny because so things felt so random. You mean to tell me that the aliens are the only ones can operate their weapons, and the weapons are powerful enough to literally explode their enemies, and there are tons of these...and the aliens either don't use them to take over or they sell them food? (Um, cat food? Giant shrimp from another galaxy are in love with cat food? And calling them shrimp is about the only explanation for the ethnic slur "prawn," because the movie never tells me the how or why.) One friend pointed out that the film mentioned the aliens were likely low-level workers on the ship, which might be interesting enough to make sense, except that raises all sorts of questions like where are the other aliens who actually piloted or lived on the ship, and even then the film only raises that as a hypothesis. If the mothership was always operational, then why the hell do you need the fuel? (And the film never really tells you what the fuel is actually made from or why it takes twenty years to make.) Unless the "ship part" that fell is somehow part of the cockpit, since it can operate as one once it docks inside - but the film never tells me. How did humans learn their language - and, more importantly, how did the aliens learn English - in twenty years without writing anything down (which is one place where that "Well, they're workers" theory starts to look even weaker)? How did the aliens get human-sounding names like Christopher? And if human-sounding, why so English when the film is set in South Africa?

And speaking of the setting, when I stopped to think about it, Johannesburg felt more like a gimmick than a setting. It's interesting to see an alien movie taking place outside a big American city like New York for a change, and the allegorical reasons seemed appropriate to somewhere in Africa. But from there, it felt like that's the only reason to set it in Johannesburg, and trying to be so special is a bad reason to set any story. Change a few minor details and the story would've played out the same way in Russia, London or hell, New York. One thing I noted was the voodoo on alien bodies in the film which, again, is an interesting concept of how alien immigrants might impact local culture and/or religion, but from there the ball gets dropped because the voodoo felt like more of a reflection on South Africans being kooky witch doctors than anything, which starts to bother me when I think about using superstitious South Africans as a mere plot device. A friend suggested that Johannesburg was a good setting because Johannesburg has a very diverse culture and society where several immigrant groups are packed into shantytowns like sardines in a can, making it a giant melting pot where aliens could fit in. This is a good theory and it's definitely interesting...except the film doesn't do anything with it.

The editing of the film itself bothered me, too. There are a few places where you can tell they got sloppy - there's even a place during the climax where one character was barking orders, then crouching down to snipe out a building, and when the scene cuts to an explosion, the next shot of the character has him back on the other side standing and barking orders instead of crouched where he was. And the oh-so-realistic documentary style was poorly handled and ended up feeling like another gimmick. The film couldn't decide if it was a documentary or a typical sci-fi thriller because the film actually told the story both ways; most of scenes were told in normal linear film fashion, which felt weird because it would switch back and forth between styles from start to end. It wasn't necessarily confusing, but it felt weird.

Maybe I'm just an oddball when it comes to sci-fi films; one other thing that significantly separates Cloverfield from District 9 is that I'm the only person I know who really enjoyed Cloverfield. But I'm really not that particular about having answers spoonfed to me and usually prefer to be kept guessing during a movie. I feel like I could keep going with pointing out the weak spots in District 9, and that's because it's like one of those house-trained dogs that begins to act stupider the longer you give it attention. Ultimately I can't entirely hate the film because I was definitely entertained and had a good time in the theater. With some better writing and direction (and cleaner editing), the film might've suffered less under the pressure of its constant effort to be "unique" and "special." And perhaps the sequel (and there may almost certainly be one or two of them) will be better developed or explain some of these holes to me. But I can only recommend a dollar-theater or DVD viewing of District 9. I don't understand how it blew your mind, Sara Vilkomerson, or how the hell you could possibly find it "philosophically sophisticated," Christy Lemire. To me, those are gimmicky buzz phrases indicating only what this movie maybe could have have been.

*I consider alien movies like Independence Day to be part of the disaster film genre because when you look at the tyoical narrative structure of both films, they generally play out the same way whether the planet is threatened with asteroids, twisters, hurricanes, 2012, or space ships. Makes me think we should also throw in Transformers.

No comments:

Post a Comment