Thursday, May 13, 2010

District 9

Hey, we're back from the blogging graveyard! Miracles do happen...

What brought about this resurrection? The South-African science fiction film District 9 (not to be confused with Nine or District 13, respectively a modern Fellini-based musical and Luc Besson-produced urban tripe with a few redeeming action scenes).
District 9 succeeds at a lot of things: it has great special effects, a very well-realized alien race (no Star Trek wrinkled forehead aliens here), a clear message, visceral action scenes and more than a dollop of gore, and very good acting from the lead, Sharlto Copey.

Yet is it a classic? I don't think so, though it could have been.

SPOILERS AHEAD... You have been warned.

One of the reasons that District 9 isn't as powerful as it should be is because of the narrative choice made in the beginning of the film.

District 9 shows us what would happen if a mothership full of stranded aliens would appear above Johannesburg. The aliens, nicknamed Prawns for their appearance, are locked in camps and basically stripped of all rights. To introduce us to the complex situation, the film starts off as if it were a documentary. It shows the arrival of the ship, the discovery of the aliens, features several experts who comment on various aspects of the situation (economic, social, judicial, biological...). Slowly, a theme emerges: a certain Wikus van der Merwe, who we have seen as an ineffectual bureaucrat, is apparently missing and considered a traitor to the human race by many.

We then follow Wikus on the ill-fated operation in which the Prawns were served notice that they would be removed to another camp, far from Johannesburg, the following day. All of this is still documentary-style, with Wikus constantly explaining to the camera crew that follows him everything that goes on and is discovered during the operation.

On the one hand, choosing a documentary framework for this story aids in delivering the exposition. A lot of information is not dramatized but explained to the audience directly. But because the film copies the style of a television documentary, this doesn't throw us out of the movie. We know the genre, know how information is conveyed and accept it. So a complex situation is spelled out fairly swiftly, aided by strong visuals, and the need for people to explain a situation they're all aware of to each other is removed.

On the other hand, it makes it fairly hard to become emotionally involved with the story. For quite a while, we're left wondering what the film is going to be about, and we don't connect to van der Merwe until well into the second act.

Things go wrong for van der Merwe when he is exposed accidentally to an alien liquid, which starts a physical transformation in him. The liquid was actually intended to be used as fuel by an alien scientist (we suppose), named Christopher Johnson by the humans, in order to start the mothership up again. When van der Merwe starts changing, he becomes a guinea pig for his company, MNU, which also manufactures weapons and wants to discover a way to have the Prawn weapons function for humans as well. Wikus is the perfect test subject, but is treated horribly and he escapes, finally finding refuge with Christopher Johnson and collaborating with him to get the alien liquid back in exchange for a promise to cure him of the transformation.

It's only from the moment where van der Merwe starts to change, that we're in a 'normal' film story. There's a clear protagonist, he has a goal and is faced with a lot of opposition. And to be fair, we do care about the protagonist once he begins to suffer mightily. This is also the point in the film where the documentary angle all but disappears.

It does return, however, at the very end, when van der Merwe's final fate is once again related documentary-style.

There are two problems with this, from the writing point of view:

1) as stated above, the beginning of the film doesn't draw the audience in emotionally

2) the shift in point-of-view doesn't strengthen the narrative. Even during the documentary section, we cut away a few times to the aliens gathering the liquid/fuel for their escape attempt. And these scenes are 'normal', not part of the documentary. Similarly, we follow van der Merwe together with the documentary crew, until the consequences of his accident start to play up. Then, we're following him as the protagonist of the movie, yet at the very end, all of a sudden, the documentary is 'back'. So, is what we've seen part of the documentary or not? It's a radical shift in storytelling POV (from a very detached third person overview to a very intense first person experience) which doesn't really help the movie that much. Choosing to stick with the documentary angle would have probably made the film too 'intellectual' - by which I mean, appealing only to the intelligence of the audience, not (or insufficiently) to their emotions.
Choosing to tell it as a 'straight' story, without framework, however, would have made that emotional connection from the start. Yes, the exposition challenge would have been huge (though to be honest, we learn very little about the aliens and their society during the film), but the emotional pay-off would have made it all worthwhile.

If anything, this shows how important POV is in screenwriting, and flipping from one narrative POV to another without a very compelling reason to do so is detrimental to the whole.

Another problem with the film is that Wikus has two 'idiot plot' moments which stand out as a sore thumb. First, when he's told by the alien that his cure will take three years, he reacts as we all would (ahem): he knocks him out and steals his shuttle to the mothership. What he hopes to accomplish there, or how he intends to cure himself of his condition is unclear. But it's a moment which is necessary for the escape attempt to go haywire and the bad guys to find the good guys.
A second moment comes a little later when Wikus has acquired a mech suit full of weapons. Does he attack the mercenaries who threaten him? No, he begs for his life and runs away (even though he's got more firepower on board than an aircraft carrier). Only to turn back a minute later when he hears the villainous mercs are going to kill Christopher. One might argue that van der Merwe is an ordinary man with no combat experience, and that his behaviour is therefore logical and well-founded. True, but one minute later he does a complete about-turn and valiantly slaughters dozens of bad guys in creative ways, and holds them off in order to let Christopher fulfill his mission, even though this act will doom him. There's just not enough time to make this change seem credible, though the vigorous action keeps the audience entertained enough not to ponder the point too much.

Add to this some major plot holes (such as, why do the aliens seem to be superhumanly powerful one moment and total wimps the next, or why don't they rebel against humanity when there are illegal stockpiles of alien weaponry all over the district), and the end result is a film with many qualities, but which is dragged down just a bit too much by its screenwriting flaws.