Review: “District 9″: I’ll have the sweet and sour shrimp

district9censusSharito Copley and a “Prawn”

I actually didn’t plan on writing this review today, but sometimes you just have to get something out. Kind of like when I hid in a bathroom stall at the Union Square theater for 10 minutes yesterday afternoon after having my fragile core rattled to the point of breaking by an action movie about giant shrimps from outer space who eat cat food.

Yes, District 9 made this bitch cry like a 3-year old baby girl.

I almost hesitate to say ANYTHING about this movie, because part of its genius (and just part, as it’s pretty much across-the-board a perfect genre movie) is its keen understanding of the power of original, immediate storytelling. The control that this bizarre story will (hopefully) have over your nerves is so masterful and so utterly absent from most contemporary genre films that it feels like it’s something that’s never been done before. Of course, that’s not the case, but in an era where sci-fi movies are more about which city is going to be destroyed by a tidal wave of pixels than the human condition, District 9 is a welcome slap in the tentacled face.

disctrict9horizon

The story is of course about a giant alien ship that has been hovering silently over Johannesburg for 20 years, and within about three minutes of mock news footage and fake documentary interviews about how the millions of aliens (“prawns”) onboard have become South Africa’s new unwanted class, the parallels to Apartheid and the nation’s ongoing racial unrest will be clear. But this isn’t a direct allegory or a ponderous meditation, by any stretch: it’s a gooey, violent, terrifying adventure set in the bleakest Earthbound landscape imaginable. It’s a waking nightmare made all the more hellish because it’s happening here, on our planet, right now.

Technically, the film is a marvel. Seamlessly integrating digital characters and effects into gritty, on-the-ground footage (imagine Cloverfield if the monster were 7 feet tall and a central character), it’s start-to-finish a jaw-dropping thrill-ride. Cleverly laid out to make you think that what you just saw MUST be the extent of the visual wizardry (and gooey gore), the movie one-ups itself at every turn, and the cumulative effect is stunning. I won’t give away any of the twists but I will say that my mouth was literally hanging open at a few of the surprises.

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And then of course there’s the tears. People, I haven’t been this emotionally invested in a movie in ages, and IT IS ABOUT GIANT SHRIMP. And it wasn’t just me: on the way out of the packed theater, I noted dozens of people (jaded New Yorkers, no less!) sitting quietly in their seats wiping their cheeks, hoping that the exiting crowd wouldn’t notice.

Sure, on the surface this is a movie about how humans react to the arrival of an alien race that, while not terribly hostile, is a marked inconvenience to our social system. But more than that, it’s about how all races and species jostle for survival, and how all too often our worst tendencies (greed, anger, fear) come to the surface when we lose our patience and willingness to learn.

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Our own innate xenophobia is laid out in all its bloody, ugly glory, and our instincts and impulses are played upon brilliantly (notice that, while all the human characters have authentic, strange-sounding South African names, the central prawn’s rather amusing immigrant name is “Christopher Johnson”, encouraging us to identify immediately with the only non-human character). And rather than wrap this sentiment in an overly earnest drama, the decision to propel the idea with a shoot-em-up action movie pays off in spades.

Simply put, it fucking works. Neill Blomkamp, executive producer Peter Jackson, first-time actor Sharito Copley (who is outstanding as the bureaucrat trapped in the middle of this waking nightmare) and all others involved have made the best kind of science fiction possible: the kind that entertains mercilessly even as it challenges us to be better people. (Oh, and all the bad guys look like COLT models waiting to be activated, which never hurts.) It’s the best film I’ve seen so far all year, and one of the best of its genre, and it is not to be missed.

RATING (out of 5):

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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.