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Saturday, September 5, 2009

District 9: A Watchmen moment?

District 9, the new film directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson, is getting a lot of good press. Critics like the vision of the young director:

"District 9 proves that genre films, besides being a hell of a lot of fun, can say things you hadn't considered and show stuff you haven't seen."

They like the quality of the acting, and the special effects:

"District 9 is the rare arms-and-ammo flick in which the central human performance is as high-caliber as the hardware." Washingtonpost

And they like the setting; squalid Johannesburg slums in the blinding glare of the African sun:

"Who needs Manhattan when there are so many megalopolises and sprawling slum-republics about which brilliant films like District 9 can be be made?" Telegraph

I liked the film a lot too. Despite a slightly flappy story, the heavy-handed metaphor and a short-change ending It's almost certainly the best sci-fi film of the year and possibly the film of the year. You should go and see it.

But what really struck me about it was not the quality of the acting, the set-pieces, nor even the CGI, but the construction of the film itself. This is an oddly put together piece that starts as mockumentary, before descending into a more traditional third-person style, but peppered with news stories and spliced with character interviews and soundbites. Honestly, bits of this film resemble Transformers, and other bits resemble The Office.

Different scenes draw from different filmmakers and styles, but there is only one thing that the whole reminds me of, and that's not a film at all. What Blomkamp has done is pick different styles purposely and deliberately, his choices have cinematic and story purpose (for example, the mockumentary approach quickly normalises the bizarre idea of an alien slum, the news clips establish the broader context and set up audience expectations, while the action-packed third act accelerates the story and creates a sympathetic context for a little sentimentality).

This postmodern raid of the stylistic drawer reminded me heavily of Watchmen - not the mawkish film, but the brilliant original graphic novel. What Alan Moore did with Watchmen was use different media to get past some of the shortcomings of the comic medium. He interspersed the graphic chapters with letters, book chapters and newspaper articles, and even interweaved a second text, a comic within the comic (The Tales of the Black Freighter). The medium is the message, and with Watchmen the genius was in the telling - which is possibly why the literal film translation was a little disappointing.

Well, Blomkamp is doing with film what Moore did with the graphic novel. He throws away convention and presents a disrupted narrative, making stylistic choices that make his film deeper and more interesting while keeping it lean. It's just different enough from what we normally expect to be a little disconcerting, but it's very effective.

I liked this film a lot, but I'm more excited about what it's shown us is possible. These past two decades we have gotten a little to used to the polished tropes of epic sci-fi, District 9 reminds us that there is another way, that filmmakers are free to draw on all the facets of our media age and make their films the way that best fits their story rather than our expectations.

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