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District 9 (2009)

District 9

by Steve Habrat

Before August of 2009, the summer movie season had largely been an uneventful one. About the only films worth talking about were the spiffed up reboot of the sagging Star Trek franchise and Pixar’s Up, which was a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of adventure in all of us. Then August 14th arrived and the summer movie season received the electric shock that it severely needed. Enter Neill Blomkamp, a little known South African director who had been developing a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. With their Halo project abandoned, Blomkamp and Jackson opted to make District 9, a gritty, Johannesburg-set science-fiction allegory for apartheid that was based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Celebrated as one of the most original sci-fi films of recent memory, District 9 boasts creativity as far as the eye can see, featuring a breathless pace, gruesome action that isn’t for the faint of heart, imaginative extraterrestrials, alien weaponry guaranteed to make geeks everywhere giddy, and a classic performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley. As if a strong late summer opening and critical acclaim weren’t enough for District 9, the film went on to earn a surprising four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Not too shabby for a $30 million sci-fi actioner that could have easily been overlooked by the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

District 9 begins by explaining that in 1982, a UFO came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After hovering motionless for several days, an investigation team entered the ship and discovered thousands of malnourished aliens fighting for their lives. With the world watching, the South African government rounded up the aliens and moved them to a government camp called District 9, which is located just outside of the city. After several nasty run-ins between the locals and the aliens (the locals refer to them as “Prawns”), the government created Multinational United, a company that is tasked with moving the aliens to District 10, a new camp further outside Johannesburg. The man in charge of this project is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a lowly MNU employee who receives a promotion from company executive Piet Smith (played by Louis Minnar), who also happens to be Wikus’ father-in-law. Wikus and a heavily armed task force arrive in District 9 to serve eviction notices, but while investigating, Wikus stumbles upon a laboratory set-up in the home of Christopher Johnson (played by Jason Cope), a clever alien capable of piloting the massive UFO back to alien’s home planet. While snooping around the lab, Wikus finds a small canister that contains a thick black fluid. After accidentally spraying himself in the face with the liquid, Wikus begins mutating into an alien and finds himself being hunted by the corporation that once employed him.  With MNU closing in, Wikus takes shelter in District 9 and seeks the help of Christopher, who agrees to fix Wikus if he agrees to help Christopher get to the alien mothership.

Opting for a “found footage” style over a conventional approach, District 9 is instantly given a much more intimate feel through a series of downtrodden interviews, cinema vértité-esque exchanges and encounters in the field, and stock footage news reports that aid in the exposition. This approach instantly separates District 9 from the rest of the sci-fi bunch (well, except maybe from Cloverfield, which applied the “found footage” style to prey upon our post 9/11 paranoia). The middle section of the film finds Blomkamp largely abandoning this approach only to re-embracing it in the action packed climax. Yet we don’t even notice that Blomkamp has dropped this style because we have completely lost ourselves in this alternate reality. When the whirlwind of action blows through the climax, the breaking news reports and the surveillance footage adds a brutal edge to the violence. People are ripped apart by alien weaponry, spaceships crash into dilapidated huts, alien droids send bullets rocketing back at the MNU forces, and that motionless spaceship begins to move. Through all of this chaos, we hold our breath for Wikus, who is the sole cause of all of this bloodshed.

District 9 #2

On its own, District 9 would have had enough creative juice in the tank to allow it to cross the finish line, but Blomkamp made the wise decision to cast his real-life buddy Sharlto Copley as Wikus. Copley, who had never acted before this, throws himself into the role as if he may never get the chance to star in a summer movie again. Believe me when I say that he takes a really good movie and makes it great. The off-the-cuff scenes of Wikus fumbling with his microphone add a bit of humor to a film that is gravely serious and a scene in which Wikus gushes over his wife for the cameras is truly a touching moment. Even though he may be a giant loveable dweeb in the slower scenes, Copley shows he can run with the big dogs when the action explodes. Copley also shares plenty of tender moments with Cope’s Christopher Johnson, a resourceful alien who will do whatever it takes to protect his precocious young son. David James is particularly vicious as Colonel Koobus Venter, the brutal muscle of the MNU tasked with hunting the terrified Wikus down. Eugene Khumbanyiwa gives a grotesque turn as Obesandjo, the paralyzed leader of the Nigerian arms dealers who has a stomach-churning taste for alien flesh. Together, James and Khumbanyiwa form a particularly nasty thorn in Wikus’ side and make for two seriously memorable movie villains. Vanessa Haywood balances out the evil as Tania, Wikus’ heartbroken wife who wonders if she will ever see her husband again.

While District 9 has plenty of action and gee-whiz wonder at its core, the film does have quite a bit of depth to it. It is no secret that District 9 is an allegory for the apartheid era that gripped South Africa during the 1960s and there certainly is an exploration of racism, which allows the film to retain a lasting relevance. The heady ideas are a nice touch and they are smartly balanced out in between the mesmerizing performances, gut-punch action, and the breathtaking pacing. And I can’t forget to mention the impressive special effects executed on a shoestring budget. The aliens are cool and that spaceship that looms over ever shot consistently fills us with sublime wonder. As far as flaws go, there are very few to be found within District 9, although there are a couple of plot points that could have been elaborated on but that would just be nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Overall, upon your first viewing of District 9, there is absolutely no way you can walk away untouched by it. It is fueled by pure vision and adrenaline, and this strange brew is spiced up with a performance from Sharlto Copley that genre fans will be talking about for years to come. No matter how many times you see District 9, it is always like watching it for the first time. It deserves to join the ranks of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

Grade: A+

District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Elysium (2013)

Elysium #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?

Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.

Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.

Elysium #2

In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.

As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.

At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.

Grade: A-