Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

Many years ago there was this really great movie about life crises (both mid- and teen) called American Beauty. It was and is one of my favorite movies ever, if for no other reason that a naked Annette Benning having, ahem, vigorous sex and shouting "F*ck me, your majesty!"

I mention this movie, aside from the prurient joy of mentioning the sex scene, because it was a movie that was marketed about as badly as you could market a movie. When it was being plugged pre-release style, the initial trailers were all pretty serious, which made sense because in the end it was a very serious movie. Somewhere along the line, however, someone at the studio decided that they weren't going to get enough butts in the seats, and they started advertising it as a teen comedy.

It was not a teen comedy, nor was it really a movie aimed at teens, although there were teen characters acting in a realistic fashion. It certainly had some funny moments, but the core of the movie wasn't funny but instead poignant.

Yesterday, we went to go see District 9, the new South African made movie produced by Peter Jackson, of LotR fame. The movie features bug-like aliens, a giant ship hovering over Johannesburg, and a documentary-like quality that is perfect for telling the tale they wish to tell. While there are some action scenes, in general the movie is not an action movie, nor is it really intended to be a science fiction movie as, say, Star Wars was. In fact, almost the entire film takes place in a slum, albeit one filled with the "prawn" as the aliens are called (in a derogatory fashion, you never learn what they call themselves but I'm pretty sure it involves a lot of clicking).

I'll get this out of the way now - the movie is very good, but it doesn't cast humans in a particularly good light. In fact, with three exceptions (and one of which isn't an exception at all for most of the film), people look like major d*cks, and the ones that don't are pretty minor characters. What it does do is show how little we are really able and/or willing to do for those in need if those in need don't look or talk or act like us. Set in a post-apartheid South Africa, it's pretty obvious what the message is, and it's one that I for one feel Americans need to be exposed to more often.

But I digress. Most of the film trailers I've seen so far on television focus on the action parts of the film, which is not surprising. However, you can tell who the studio is *really* trying to market to by what trailers are shown before the film starts. In the case of District 9, every trailer was for a teen slasher flick or similar. Jennifer's Body, Final Destination God Help Us In 3D, Someone's Killing Sorority Sisters And It's Damned Well About Time, Saw/Horror Porn VI, a litany of movies I wasn't that interested in when I *was* a teenager, and am certainly not interested in now.

Which means that a bunch of teenagers are going to see this movie thinking it's all exploding humans and attacking aliens and it's not at all like that. And I think it's brilliant. Because this is an audience that isn't going to see anything that's socially or politically thought-provoking, at least on purpose, and Peter Jackson is tricking them all into going to what for all practical purposes is an art house movie with some fairly realistic liquification scenes tossed in for spice.

I'll also note that there was a pretty forceful attempt to set up for a sequel, but to be honest the real meat of the film had nothing to do with the aliens and everything to do with us, and I can't see that there will be nearly as strong or valuable a lesson in a sequel. Then again, there haven't been too many sequels that outdid the original, at least in terms of art and not boom-boom (both kinds). Alien was a quintessential horror film, and James Cameron came back with an action chase film in Aliens. He did the same with Terminator, which was mostly intended to rehabilitate Arnold as a "good" robot. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is about the only modern sequel I can think of other than The Empire Strikes Back that outdid the it's direct ancestor.

I left the theater actually kind of depressed after the film, although I enjoyed it immensely. Mostly because I have such little faith in humanity's ability to get beyond our physiology and DNA, and this movie only reinforced that belief. When faced with massive suffering of people that aren't like us, we do the minimum possible to make it appear that we're helping, then at the first opportunity we try to get them as far out of sight and the 24 hour news cycle as possible. I was brought up to believe that people are good and kind and noble, but the first time you take a corporate job you realize how untrue that is. Part of what made this film so horrific was how *easily* people made decisions based on quarterly profits and market advantage, or even out of pure hatred of The Other.

Not that this should stop you from seeing the movie. I only hope that some of the kids who go to see some very impressive weaponry get something a bit deeper from the film, because I'm fairly certain that that is the film's basic intent. I'm also looking forward to more films from South Africa. Highly recommended.


Eric said...

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is about the only modern sequel I can think of other than The Empire Strikes Back that outdid the it's direct ancestor.

Addams Family Values was significantly better than the original, but I don't think that's the genre you're looking at.

dave said...

SpiderMan 2.

Better action, better villians, better writing (Michael Chabon et al)

Peter said...

X2 was a major improvement on the first (more focused since it didn't have to introduce everyone).

I liked D9 but didn't find it as pessimistic as you. It was nice to see a movie where the aliens struggled with morality and direction as much as the humans.

I didn't think the ending was promoting a sequel so much as ambiguity. The movie's saying there's no one neat, audience pleasing solution (whether positive or negative).

Dug said...

This whole discussion about how pathetic the human race is, and everyone suggests good sequels! ;-)

Agreed on all, BTW, although I never saw the Addams Family sequel and X2 didn't have a very high bar set.

Peter, I guess my point was that the aliens did a lot *more* struggling with morality and direction as the humans did. Aside from the anti-hero's transformation at the end (of his worldview and motivations), the only real "good" human was the guy who played his assistant, who had very little onscreen time. Even the wife was more concerned with maintaining the status quo than anything else. Everyone was else were more alien to me than the aliens.

As for a sequel, I'll say it once: Three Years. District 10 in 2012. I'll take bets offline.