I don’t often attempt film reviews, or indeed see films these days. Nevertheless, I did enjoy District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp) on DVD over the weekend. This film was successful commercially and critically when it was first released, but none of the many internet outpourings at the time made me want to shell out for what has become a ghastly experience that has to be endured to see a film on a big screen. I made a mental note to watch it when on DVD. I must have then forgotten all about it, but was reminded of its existence recently by Gillian Slovo’s recommendation at the London Book Fair South African panel discussion. In HMV on Saturday, I looked up the movie and found it there for cheaper than a cinema ticket (and it is even cheaper on Amazon). Hence I bought it and two people so far have seen it, thus satisfying my inner craving for a bargain.
Enough preamble, what of the film? It’s both exciting and formulaic. The basic premise, as I am sure everyone knows, is that an alien spaceship breaks down above Johannesburg, South Africa, and for the next 20 years the rescued aliens (called “prawns” as that’s just what they look like, in giant form) cause annoyance to the humans by their ugly, messy ways, obsessive love of tinned cat food, etc. All the prawns have to live in a shanty town called District 9, but at the start of the film public ire has reached the point of no return, so the aliens are to be moved out to a more distant “tent city”, District 10.
The film is shot in documentary style, as the hapless military, public-health and corporate officials, followed everywhere by media cameras, make uncomprehending aliens sign their eviction orders preparatory to being moved out. Of course, everything goes horribly wrong in an assortment of funny and violent ways, not least involving a group of Nigerian opportunists who have set up shop in the District.
This film is extremely exciting and has a strong, if predictable, plot. Because it isn’t a Hollywood movie (the Lord of the Rings team of Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens are involved in the production), there is no mushy, compromise ending, thankfully. The film follows through on its premise. As an allegory for discrimination and prejudice, it is unlikely to surprise anyone, but it’s a nice touch to have revolting, unsympathetic (mainly) prawns as the underdogs and equally unsympathetic people as the oppressors. There are strong subplots about family loyalties, medical research and ordinary people’s attitudes to what they either can’t understand or don’t want to face.
The reaction in Petrona Towers was 50-50. I really liked the film as I was not expecting anything from it and it kept my attention (I didn’t fall asleep in the middle as I usually do in anything longer than an hour). I liked the pacy docu-drama format which ensures no longueurs. There are no nice characters, which is also refreshing, though I found myself quite liking the initially unsympathetic main protagonists (one human and one prawn) more as the film progressed. The child prawn is gorgeous and cute, thankfully not tripping over into Spielbergian Disneyfied sentiment. There is a rubbish “boys toys”, blood-splattered, shoot-out pre-finale, but I could forgive that given the great tension and excitement in the preceding hour and a half that did not fall into those common indulgences. And the real finale – it follows through. (Though of course there is lots of unexplained hokum about constructing spaceships and the like which you have to accept on its own terms or you’ll find the film annoying.) Prof Petrona was less keen on the movie than me. But then he had just finished a book about Dirac before watching it.
Gillian Slovo also recommended Invictus (dir. Clint Eastwood), which she said was unfairly overlooked on release as people assumed incorrectly it is a sports movie per se. So when that one comes out on DVD next month or thereafter, I’ll be watching that, too.