Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 8 ½, I Wish

[N.B. This review contains all sorts of spoilers. Read it only after watching D9, that is, if you have any mayo left over.]

Last night I caught District 9, and while it was an instructive experience in getting me to better articulate to myself and the friend with whom I watched it the many elements of modern films and specifically action-oriented films that I dislike and why, it wasn't an innately pleasurable viewing experience at all.

I usually don't take the time to write down my detailed thoughts in response to movies I don't enjoy, but seeing as to how I seem to be in the minority on this one, I think it's worth making an exception.

As an SF movie, District 9 offers nothing new. Remove the SF and let's try again. As a movie, District 9 offers nothing new.

Is the not-newness that it offers technically dazzling? Is the production and storytelling technique worth your time?


To start, this movie is doing really well critically. Its currently rated at 89% on RT (with Top Critics at 88%), and the consensus is "Technically brilliant and emotionally wrenching, District 9 has action, imagination, and all the elements of a thoroughly entertaining science-fiction classic." On IMDB it has achieved the rank of #33 on the Top 250 list.


Let's return to that RT consensus and look at the pieces:

"Technically brilliant."

The special effects are handled well, the CGI of the prawns blends seamlessly with the setting, the editing is deftly paced, the shots themselves are functional and pretty and stylish. The alien ship design and technologies are visually stunning. Yes, yes, yes. But technically brilliant? If point-of-view falls into the realm of technique, then no. As other viewers have commented, the mockumentary pov is inconsistently handled, and that's a severe technical shortcoming. It's easy to believe we are watching real people's reactions to events and it's fun to piece together what those events are from (nearly) disjointed video clips as long as there is consistency in the effect. But the pretense is brutally pulled out from under us less than half an hour in, when we are suddenly witness to a private exchange between prawns ("Christopher," an ally, and Christopher's son) rummaging through trash and discovering the "black fuel liquid." Major plot unfolds outside of the mockumentary cameras. This completely ruined – or, interrupted – my suspension of disbelief. At other times, the film attempts to have it both ways, splicing shots of omniscient, narrative pov with mockumentary character reactions to the events depicted therein, and it's distractingly off-putting. I'm thinking, in particular, of Wikus' escape sequence from the MNU facility. We see him running across town in hospital gowns, while commentators observe that no-one knew where he was and became incredibly sought-after. Let me reiterate: while we're being told this, we see him running across town in hospital gowns!

Another payoff that fails to arrive relates to the timeline mechanism, whereby the film keeps our sense of the chronology of events by telling us via caption that we are "X Hours After Initial Exposure." I can see this as an effective means of building our suspense towards witnessing Wikus' final transformation. Presumably, one infers, as the hours after exposure continue to build, we'll get to see more and more of his metamorphosis. Or, we could dispense with that silly idea altogether, and follow the route the film actually takes; to spend incredible amounts of time in the phase where only a hand, arm, and part of Wikus' back (oh, and an eye! The insectoid eye!) have changed and then to skip to a final shot where he is completely transformed. That's what I call a Tease.

Speaking of which, the Wikus-confronts-his-transformed-hand-and-attempts-to-cut-it-off sequence didn't work for me. First, he may not be a bright guy (as repeatedly demonstrated throughout), but he should realize that if the liquid that got in him through his face has caused a change to his hand, removing the hand probably won't fix much, since the stuff's inside him. Alternatively, he wouldn't even need to realize this, since some good info-dumping during his detention and near-butchering at MNU explained the above. So he would really just need to remember what he knows. But that's asking too much of an alien-quashing bureaucrat with a funny accent, so let's chop off the hand instead. I kept waiting for him to talk to the moving finger-tentacles, and then actually fight them off once they'd been detached. At least, an homage to Ash in Evil Dead 2 would have enlivened the proceedings. But that would be tasteless, I suppose.

Also, for my taste, the visuals of the mother-ship pilot interface, with its "move your arms like you're conducting music while you drag colorful icons through the air" were too reminiscent of those in Minority Report.

And while we're on production, the music was distracting. Not un-enjoyable on its own (though a little generic), Clinton Shorter's score is too present throughout. As Justing Chang notes in the Variety review: "Clinton Shorter's percussive score is effective but at times over-reliant on the loud wailing/crooning that has become a too-easy signifier of Africa and other foreign locales."

"Emotionally wrenching."

I didn't find the characters engaging, nor did I discover sufficient cause to empathize with any of them. I'm supposed to sympathize with Wikus, I guess, who goes from genocidal-jerk to less-genocidal-but-still-completely-self-centered-action-hero-sacrificial-jerk. Sorry, that's a tough sell. Initially, what is the context for his extreme lack of compassion towards the prawns? This is a guy who makes jokes about the popcorn-like sound of their newborn eggs/hatchlings being roasted alive while praising the efficiency and ingenuity of his method of massive incineration. His wife is a sketch of a character at best. Her dad is Pure Corporate Evil. In a clichéd lack-of-twist, the alien Christopher is the most human of us all, maintaining a fair view, demonstrating loyalty, honor, responsibility, resourcefulness and – don't forget the Big One—a Moral Compass. Yawn. So Wikus can be viewed as a representation of humanity's cluelessness and barbarism, but that makes him neither interesting nor compelling nor a character. His motivation in wanting to excel at his corporate-lacky job is far from sufficient to explain his demonstrated dehumanization. Let's not forget the gang-members/arms traffickers: more clichés than you could shake a giant prawn at. Not finding characters I could care about, it was impossible for the movie to become emotionally anything, least of all wrenching. Well, with the possible exceptions of tedious and hammy.

The dialogue also makes it hard to admire the film-making or sympathize with the characters. Forget the deadening expletives, which are almost fun through sheer exuberance, but when you're bludgeoned by inane lines about deadly, silent killings and multinational profits and "I'm going to come after you" threats it all becomes a little displeasing. Add to that serviceable but uneven (and occasionally histrionic) acting and you've got a real charming mix.

"District 9 has action."

No argument there. But even the main action-sequence, with the bodysuit, felt uninspired. I'm tired of these exoskeletal bodysuits. They were fun in Aliens, kinda fun in Matrix Revolutions and only mildly interesting in Iron Man (and, at that, because there it was central to the character's superhero persona). Here it was literally clunky. I mean, Christopher, who's been beat up by the Menacing MNU agents has better luck running through a storm of ricocheting bullets by holding a piece of an unhinged shanty-door than Wikus who, incidentally, is using Christopher's advanced tech bodysuit. And again with the lack of tech-consistencies. In one of those jolly-gosh-wow moments, shortly after activation, we see the suit stave off hundreds of bullets by drawing them into and collecting them in some kind of magnetic beam or force-fieldy-floaty sphere of humming energy. This is good. This is the kind of technological sophistication that might inspire Homer or Fry to quip "See, magic" and that might impress us. But then we don't see much more of this repellant energy-field, and we're back down to missiles and bullets etc. Other action sequences, since as Wikus escaping the hospital, are well-executed and impressively filmed (though not nearly as artfully or in totally immersive a fashion as, say, Greengrass in The Bourne Ultimatum) but they're so implausible that the lack of tension caused by disbelief drowns out the purely visual tension.

"District 9 has imagination."

I agree with this. Even for the avid SF fan, there's at least an attempt made to explain what's happened and to play with interspecies diversity. The bio-genetically triggered weaponry and hardware is also neat, and the black bilge fuel is cool. I was a little confused as to why the same bilge which powers all systems would turn a human into a prawn. (The scene where the black stuff comes out of Wikus' nose is effective, but the Black Oil from The X-Files kind of got there first). Other than that, the film is a fable, and I think it satisfies the imaginative criteria of that kind of storytelling.

"District 9 has all the elements of a thoroughly entertaining science-fiction classic."

Not even sure what this means. I think it assumes that there is a subset of elements shared by science-fiction classics, and then asserts that D9 possesses these elements. I really doubt the assumption that SF classic films share specific quantifiable traits, unless one is willing to add to this list very broad characteristics such as "visionary, original, mold-breaking" etc. D9 doesn't fall into this category, and I predict it will age rather poorly.

Nancy Kress captures additional problems I have with D9 over at her blog, as well as do some of her insightful commentators.

Roger Ebert's review, one of the most balanced assessments I've found, contains the following:

"But the third act is disappointing, involving standard shoot-out action. No attempt is made to resolve the situation, and if that's a happy ending, I've seen happier. Despite its creativity, the movie remains space opera and avoids the higher realms of science-fiction."

Remember that sequence from Adaptation with the writing instructor talking about about third acts? Not that I subscribe to that tongue-in-cheek codification of commercialism, but even on this level D9 fails the Third Act Is All test miserably. Meaning, one walks away with the most lasting part of the experience being the least effective.

That's part of my feeling here, and which summarizes a lot of other things: the sense of opportunities missed.

A O. Scott describes it in his NYT review as a "smart, swift new film." I won't contest swift (though the third act is swift to become over-extended), but smart? What exactly is smart about simple characters running around in logic-defying action stunts in what even by Scott's admission becomes "an intergalactic buddy picture"? I also find this a little perplexing: "[… ] District 9, in the best B-movie tradition, they embed their ideas in an ingenious, propulsive and suspenseful genre entertainment, one that respects your intelligence even as it makes your eyes pop (and, once in a while, your stomach turn)." My issue here is, why can't a genre entertainment simultaneously be an A-movie? Why should we accept that to contain ideas in an ingenious and entertaining fashion, we must be working in the B-movie tradition?

I hope Lucius Shepard reviews this film in F&SF. If his previous takes on Hollywood SF fare are anything to go by, he'll make my rant look like a kindness.

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