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District 9

September 10, 2009

Oh, I am in a foul mood today. Mostly this is directed at a cruel and uncaring Universe that has decided to present unto me a week of bimbling mundanity interspersed with moments of ferocious annoyance. It didn’t help that I had to pick an open and used nappy out of my hedge on Monday. It’s not even bin day, so it wasn’t an escapee from a poorly tied refuse sack. What was it doing there? When your wee bairn takes a dump – and I am assuming here that parents are fully cognisant of the fact that their child’s bowel function may not necessarily coincide with the desire to get from A to B – you wait until the next convenient stopping off place before dispensing with the filthy shit-catcher, surely? Clearly I have overestimated the abilities of my fellow humans to understand the fundamentals of either child care or indeed common civilised decency.

Anyway, that’s not how you want to start the week. That’s not how I would want anyone to start his or her week. I live in the best part of the worst area of a small English city, the sort of bandit country borders where the leafy lanes can see the low rents and people talk about ‘community’ in that 1950s we-used-to-leave-our-front-doors-unlocked kind of way, before they get burgled and start reporting shut-ins to the Social as suspected paedophiles. Mostly it’s OK, and neighbours will talk, and when you wash your car some wag will go past and say, “you can clean mine while you’re at it”. And you laugh with a sort of soundless snort, and nod knowingly. All that sort of stuff. But the kids’ park gets vandalised once in a while and last night two guys had a toe-to-toe fistfight in the street after the football.

And I’m not really complaining, I’m just saying. I mean, sure, I can see how people get frustrated with life and things rack up enough and you just have to do…something. Perhaps punching the wall or kicking the cat or having a little cry isn’t going to cut it anymore, and you just have to rail against the world by pushing your baby’s fecal matter into some shrubbery. Sure. I get that. Knock yourself out. I hope it helped. Maybe it stopped you setting up a dogfighting ring, or buying a Subaru Impreza, and if so then perhaps my inconvenience and disgust was a price worth paying. You know, we all have to rub along together.

But it’s a constant worry, isn’t it? This chip-chip-chipping away at the everyday levels of respect we thought had been ingrained into our lives. Perhaps I’m on a nostalgia kick, maybe it’s my age, I don’t know, but surely the first principles of society dictate that respect has great importance in everyday life. As kids we’re taught (I hope) to respect our parents, teachers, elders, family, cultural traditions, other people’s feelings, the truth and differing opinions. The result of that inherited respect is surely a value system whereby we attribute levels of concern and admiration for people who acknowledge and reciprocate those values back to us: it is a two way street, to embrace a cliché.

All of which I mention because District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s eye-opening directorial debut, which I saw this week, seems to be about respect and living together, or not, as it turns out. Having housed a community of displaced aliens for 20 years, Johannesburg officials (the irony is a little bit heavy) attempt to move the unwanted population to a concentration-camp-style facility miles out of the way. Nerdy David Brent figure, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, another impressive debutant), is put in charge, but after an unexpected accident begins to find out what it’s like living life from the other side of the barbed wire fence.

D9 does all of its best work in the first half an hour, as the TV cameras follow Wikus around the aliens’ shanty town, driving us along with an admirably note perfect mockumentary style which neatly undermines the slam-bang blockbuster approach you may have been expecting. Much mixture of film stock, some genuine shocks, and a lot of very good nervy performances allow the film to soar during these early moments. For a while you sit there thinking that this isn’t just good, but may even be extraordinary.

Sadly, it doesn’t last, and by the end you see a film starting to slip gracelessly, and with all the chaos and racket of franchise drek, into a fairly by the numbers shoot ’em up noise fest.

It’s a shame, but it’s understandable. For a start, until the narrative comes along (it starts off small, but eventually you realise they’re introducing a side plot when you have non-handheld footage of the aliens conversing, clearly shifting us out of the mockumentary vibe), the whole drive of the movie is executed in a grainy vérité style where people bump into each other, sound goes off, and news footage is spliced in willy-nilly. This is terrific, creative stuff, but it is only being used as a scene-setter. Blomkamp (and Producer Peter Jackson), you can tell by the end, really want to throw us a meaty shoot ’em up, but they also want the movie to be talked about. Originally hoping to land the opportunity to shoot the Halo film, but seeing that chance snatched away, there is more than a little determination here to deliver a product that not only gets people talking but gets them thinking and, of course, through the doors and sitting in the seats. Therefore, not only do we get a frighteningly well executed viral campaign, which the first 30 minutes pays homage to, but we also get an idea later of what they could have done given the money and confidence they had hoped for with the earlier project.

In a way it doesn’t matter that the second half of the film tails off into a series of loud noises and messy killings (it’s all very exciting, but the originality has long since taken a back seat). You can forgive it because there is enough here to chew on for a very long time after the credits go up, and the final image is a strange mixture of the bleak and the touching.

District 9 isn’t a great film, but for a while it shakes everything up and tries hard to show that there are new ways to approach old ideas. Blomkamp and Jackson may have had an agenda, but they’ve delivered something that for the most part earns a bit of respect, and after a pretty desultory Summer, that can’t be a bad thing.

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