Thursday, September 3, 2009

The best pop movie of the year?

The derelict mothership in District 9.

My faithful readers know that in general, I feel pop culture is dead, and that high culture, though not quite a flatliner, is itself too weakened by the economy and the academy to effectively revive it. But sometimes the corpse suddenly twitches - often when Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, is playing Dr. Frankenstein. So I went to the new creature feature District 9 largely on faith in Mr. Jackson's producer credit.

I was not disappointed. District 9 could well prove the best pop movie of the year, as it does basically everything pop is supposed to do (and then some). It's true the movie, directed by Neill Blomkamp, isn't an original vision: it's an inspired cross-stitch of elements from movies as different as The Fly and Independence Day. (Even its herky-jerky, "mockumentary" visuals are essentially inherited.) But it's a lot better than any of its sources, because its makers have allied their technique to something like an old-fashioned narrative idea. Strange, I know, but true - District 9 almost never drops the narrative ball in favor of mindless sensation; instead, the social metaphor at its center grows increasingly complex and intriguing even as the fanboy gadgetry and battle-royales kick in.

In case you haven't heard, that metaphor uses the old trope of invading aliens to explore issues of racism and apartheid. But before you can say, "Oh no, not another good Kirk/bad Kirk episode!", ponder that District 9 considers apartheid in an up-to-the-minute "post-racial" mode that, well, movie aliens were all but designed for. Although this time around, the things-from-another-world aren't actually invading this one, and what's more, they're not even as powerful as we are - or at least they seem not to be, since their mothership, which parked itself over Johannesburg one sunny day, has gone derelict.

This is because, we slowly gather, the aliens exist in a kind of biomorphic symbiosis with their technology; the "prawns," as they're called by racist (alienist?) humans, even look like pieces of machinery (their pelvises resemble the hinges on action figures), and ever since some kind of command module fell out of their ship, they've been oddly docile and unable to behave in an organized fashion, like so many drones without their queen. But despite their strange behavior and the fact that they resemble something you'd boil in a very large pot(below), us earthlings weren't particularly hostile at first; we merely herded these intergalactic gimps from their high-tech crib into a ghetto - the eponymous "District 9" - which, political and economic priorites being what they are, quickly slid to shantytown status. Indeed, when the movie opens, the "prawns" are living in a squalor worthy of Slumdog Millionaire, and are being shipped out of Johannesburg en masse to a distant new internment camp.

The new face of pop oppression.

Sound resonant? Well, it is - particularly with that giant ship hovering over Johannesburg as an obvious symbol of the power this abused minority could summon, if they only knew how. Needless to say, a few savvy prawns have been working on precisely that problem; but the lid is blown off their secret project when a human bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) gets sprayed with the prawn-juice that powered their ship, and finds himself bio-morphing into an alien hybrid, a kind of Obama-like mixed-race factotum, with the sudden ability to access all that unknown power hanging over the city.

Sound resonant yet? Yes, I thought so - and the movie has of necessity unsettled the mavens of P.C. groupthink; in particular its portrayal of a Nigerian gang, which preys on the prawns in exactly the same way the white bureaucracy does (both of them are literally hungry for alien weaponry), has sparked protest from the usual dim sources. But remember, boys and girls, "post-racialism" means that Africans can be villains too. And the horrid squalor of the prawns and their primitive lives is obviously intended merely to pound home the point that whatever their outward appearance, these creatures still deserve "human" rights. Sheesh.

It's true the movie's not flawless - the precise nature of that prawn mojo juice remains a bit mysterious, and at times the headlong drive of the cinematography nearly makes a hash of the picture's continuity. Nevertheless, the movie is relentlessly gripping, and even moving, in the manner that old, good, SF used to be, and it even closes with a bittersweet, multivalent finale that's truly poignant. If you were thinking of wasting a few hours of your life with the fascist Inglourious Basterds, spend them in District 9 instead.

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