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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, August 15, 2009

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Oops! Wrong planet


By Dennis Hartley













It’s hip on the mothership: District 9



Well, it was bound to happen sometime this summer. The alien invaders have come knock knock knockin’ on the box office door to signal their seasonal pilgrimage to the local multiplex. Okay, technically, in the case of District 9, the aliens aren’t necessarily “invaders” so much as…refugees, who have the misfortune of running out of gas (in a matter of speaking) while hovering over South Africa (boy, did they make a wrong turn!).

When the film opens, we learn from the requisite montage of back story that 20-odd years have passed since the aliens first made contact; in the interim the South African government has evacuated the malnourished populace from their gargantuan mothership and introduced them to the joys of township living. The aliens, referred to derogatorily as “prawns” due to their crustacean-like physiology, develop a proclivity toward tinned cat food as a food staple, and largely resign themselves to living the slum life whilst global debate amongst the politicos drags on about what ultimately should be done about them.

In the meantime, the government has contracted a private company to micro-manage the residents of “District 9” (officialspeak for the area where the aliens are interred). The company, Multi-National United, has taken a keen interest in unlocking the secret to operating the alien weaponry that was confiscated from the mothership; much to their chagrin, the hardware does not respond to human touch. While one of the company’s officials (Sharlto Copley, excellent as the type of robotically officious, soullessly cheerful bureaucrat we all love to hate) is serving eviction notices in one of the slums, he stumbles into a life-changing situation that soon turns him into a reluctant political football in a brewing conflict between the increasingly disgruntled aliens and their human oppressors.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a “discovery” by producer Peter Jackson, who originally enlisted the up-and-comer to help develop a feature film adaptation of the Halo video game (a project which appears to be on permanent hold). As you watch District 9, you glean why Jackson has banked on this previously unknown filmmaker; he certainly has an imaginative style and a definite flair for kinetic action sequences. Although the film eventually descends into a somewhat predicable flurry of loud explosions and splattering viscera, it does sport a rousing first half, thanks to the terrific production design, outstanding alien creature effects and a gripping sense of docu-realism. It’s not for the squeamish; if you were grossed out by Jeff Goldblum’s graphically depicted transformation in David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, you might want to take a pass.

As for the element of political allegory in the film, while it can safely be assumed and is definitely implied (especially considering South Africa’s history) it is not necessarily ladled on with a trowel, either. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers are trying to make that the main thrust of the film (sometimes, a sci-fi story…is just a sci-fi story). On a side note, there is already some controversy and backlash brewing on the web regarding the film’s depiction of Nigerian nationals who live amongst the aliens. The characters in question are a Nigerian crimelord and his henchmen, who profit off the refugees via prostitution, extortion and black marketeering. In the context of the narrative, I thought the characters served the story (perhaps they could have done without the anachronistic witch doctor). District 9 is certainly not the first movie of its kind (nor do I suspect it will be the last), but it is one of the more original entries in recent memory.

They’re here, they’re weird, get used to it: Alien Nation, Enemy Mine, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Brother From Another Planet, Starman, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Thing from Another World, The Thing, It Came from Outer Space, Strange Invaders, Invaders from Mars (1953), Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned (1960), The Quatermass Xperiment, Independence Day, Transformers, Mars Attacks, The Fifth Element, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Coneheads, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Morons from Outer Space, Earth Girls are Easy, My Stepmother is an Alien, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The War of the Worlds (1953), The War of the Worlds (2005), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) I Married a Monster from Outer Space, They Live, Species, Predator, Dark City, Signs, The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), Man Facing Southeast, Simon, K-Pax.


Sea my friends














A boy and his, er, anthropomorphic fish



So, if you are not particularly in the mood to watch alien viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli. A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers little Ponyo (an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features) floundering on the beach one day and lovingly nurses her back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to show an aptitude for mimicking human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was paying homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin). His affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated by an interesting transmogrification (sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire). Things get more complicated when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-like sea god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean (he’s very strict).

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

I would hope that you don’t pre-judge the film based on Disney’s rather twee TV promos. My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.


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