So far 2009 has not been the summer of the quality blockbuster. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the season's opener, was an abomination to not just fans of the comics but anyone who has come to hope for characters and story amidst their action and special effects. "Star Trek," the triumphant reboot of the franchise, signaled greater hope for the season. Could we have another summer on par with the previous year which delivered such new blockbuster classics as "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight," "Wanted," "The Incredible Hulk," and "Hellboy II"?
Alas, ‘twas not to be. "Angels and Demons," "Terminator Salvation," the racist "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Public Enemies," and "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra" came crashing down on us in quick order. The only blockbuster to stand in defiance to this trend of mediocrity was the new "Harry Potter" film. Thankfully the season's essential comedies - "Land of the Lost," "The Hangover," "Julie and Julia," "Bruno," and "Funny People" - have managed to compensate.
It's now fallen to August, and blockbusters possessed of the independent, arthouse spirit to try and save the summer. Can Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" clean up the mess left by their more conventional mainstream cousins? We'll see this weekend if QT can bounce back from the failure of "Death Proof."
Even if he fails to deliver, though, we'll still have Blomkamp's triumphant feature-length debut, a film so good that it almost makes up for the mediocrity we've had to endure the previous months. This is the film we've been needing all summer, a thrilling, special-effects-laden blockbuster that pushes all the right buttons.
Blomkamp starts with an inventive premise drawn from his 2005 short film "Alive in Joburg" which initially caught producer Peter Jackson's attention. Interweaving mock documentary sequences with traditional narrative, "District 9" refers to a slum just outside of Johannesburg. The impoverished region's residents: the 1.5 million "prawns," (insect-like extraterrestrials) who became stranded on earth when their disabled floating saucer starts hovering over the South African capital.
After several decades the relations between humans and prawns becomes more and more strained. The corporation Multinational United (MNU) is contracted to deal with the situation and the decision is made to evict the prawns and move them to a new location further from Johannesburg. This dangerous, thankless task is assigned to Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley.)
The earnest, often downright goofy Wikus seems like an odd choice for the job. Within a few days of trying to evict the prawns Murphy's Law begins to go into effect in unexpected, terrifying ways
The film manages to touch almost every genre base. On it's face it's a sci-fi action blockbuster. And in these categories it's quite satisfying. As a science fiction film it provides a unique riff on the alien invasion narrative. And in the film's exciting third act we're treated to some intense action set-pieces that bring to mind the modern warfare genre epitomized in "Black Hawk Down."
Many scenes of "District 9" draw on the conventions of horror cinema. It's clear that Blomkamp has learned a great deal from the work of legendary auteur David Cronenberg, director of "Naked Lunch," "The Fly," and "Dead Ringers." Cronenberg knew how to get under audiences' skin with his use of body modification and infection. Blomkamp puts those tendencies to effective use to truly horrify.
Despite these scares the film is dotted with moments of comedy, especially in the early scenes of the goofy Wikus. This establishment early on of Wikus as a somewhat annoying moron will lead to the film's dramatic component as his character is further developed and gradually transformed over the course of his adventure.
Woven amidst these genre elements is an ambiguous, intellectually-stimulating socio-political commentary. The prawns interact with different groups in South Africa and could be thought of in the context of previous oppressed minorities throughout history. That the film chooses not to operate from an obvious political ideology or make the prawns analogous with any specific group only deepens the experience. This isn't a film that's going to jam some prepackaged message down our throats.
All these pieces combine to make an engrossing, surprising, endlessly entertaining piece of popular art very much on par with the best of what last summer had to offer. "District 9" is essential viewing in these dog days of 2009. Don't wait for DVD on this one.
Hopefully plenty of studio executives will keep Blomkamp in mind for upcoming summer blockbusters. If we must have another "Transformers" and "GI Joe" would it be too much to ask to have Blomkamp make one of them?