Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: District 9

The fact that District 9 (2009) became an immediate box office hit in the age of vacuous tween-oriented marketing and Michael Bay's Transformers franchise is nothing short of a miracle. Just as miraculous is the film's very existence, no less at the hands of a major studio. First time writer/director Neill Blomkamp's film is fueled by a level of originality, creativity, and disregard for convention that is nowadays only evident in the most hard-scrabble of independent cinema, and some of the more daring serialized shows on TV.
Set in Blomkamp's native South Africa, District 9 is a faux-documentary which morphs seamlessly into a narrative film. We are dropped right into the situation as if it were real. About 20 years ago, A giant alien space craft entered Earth's atmosphere, eventually coming to rest over Johannesburg. The South African military cracks the derelict craft open to find over a million malnourished extraterrestrials huddled and shivering, clearly in need of assistance. Complicating matters is that all of them appear to be essentially uneducated workers, with no leaders. The South African government hires MNU, a massive, militaristic corporation, to move the beleaguered aliens (referred to by the epithet "prawns") to a piece of land outside Johannesburg dubbed District 9. 
Moving forward to the present, we meet Wikus Van De Merwe (first-time actor Sharlto Copley), an eager desk jockey working for MNU. We follow him as he leads a team into District 9 with the task of informing the prawns that they are being relocated to a larger area. These eviction scenes are where the film really comes into its own. There is so much thrown at us. The aliens, first of all, are an achievement all by themselves. Realized through CGI motion capture, they are photo-real. While this computer-aided technique has been used all too commonly in recent years, and to varying degrees of success, the digital artists behind District 9 have taken it to the next level. The prawns not only look real on the surface, but they also move organically, which is something that has, up to this point, been seemingly impossible to achieve with CGI. Similarly, they mesh seamlessly with the real world environment, another notoriously difficult feat to pull off. 
In addition to the breathtakingly realistic prawns, another aspect that grabs us in these early scenes is just how dirty everything is. This adds realism as, sadly, it causes District 9 to resemble all too well real world slums and refugee camps, which were no doubt inspiration for the film, especially given South Africa's history of apartheid. The prawns root around in garbage heaps for food and basic supplies; intoxicated residents vomit and relieve themselves in public. These conditions, coupled with the prawn's natural and believable appearance, cause us to sympathize more with them than with any of the human characters. 
Chief among the aliens is Christopher Johnson (no doubt a name given to him by the humans in charge), a smarter-than-average prawn who is building...something; to reveal what would give far too much of the plot away. 
As the film settles into a narrative track, "Christopher" emerges as the main protagonist, with Wikus acting more as a catalyst. It is really a testament to the digital artists, and the actor behind Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), that a computer generated character who only speaks in clicks and clacks ends up tugging at our sympathies more than any of the humans. 
District 9 is not only topnotch science fiction, with the most believable first contact between humans and aliens perhaps ever depicted in cinema, but also an allegory for how we, both as individuals and as a society, relate and react to people and creatures that are not outwardly like us. In South Africa, the film reminds people not only of their all too recent history of apartheid, but also the ongoing crisis of refugee camps there and all across the continent. And in the United States (this critic's home) we see the film and think of our own record of racism, from Indian removal to slavery to segregation, while in Germany it strikes yet another cord. And on and on. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2009), a nail-biting, fall-off-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq, has no political agenda, and that might be the most impressive thing about it, though it has so many elements rightfully vying for our admiration. The only set up it gives us is "Baghdad, 2004". We, a well informed audience, can fill in the rest with our preconceptions and strong opinions. 

Our protagonist is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a brilliant, fatalistic bomb tech who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Renner brings a reckless, troubled charm to the role, and he owns the film. Save for the opening, he is in every scene. There is really no plot; the film is simply a series of insanely tense ordnance disposal sequences, with deftly subtle character details sprinkled in at just the right moments. 
Written by first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a real-life ordnance disposal unit in real-life Iraq, the film is palpably authentic. Perhaps 95% of the action is set in the war zone, and we come to feel that we have actually ridden along with these soldiers. 
Considerable praise is also due to director Kathryn Bigelow, who, in concert with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, has finally managed to find a perfect equilibrium between stationary, traditional camerawork and vomit-inducing shaky-cam. Paul Greengrass should take note. 
With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow (responsible for much mediocrity as Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker) has suddenly revealed herself to be a master of suspense. While diffusing a bomb is a cheap and easy way to build tension, she takes it to the next level, serving up a cinematic feast of details in such a precise order and combination that we are taken somewhere new. There is no overarching plot or goal; we are given moments, and as such allowed to bathe completely in each moment, as of course these soldiers must do in reality. The Hurt Locker has the rare distinction of being both informatively true to life and so cinematically innovative as to add new vocabulary to the filmic language.