Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9 and Blomkamp

[New guest blogger Charlie discusses District 9 and Blomkamp. I am pretty on the fence about seeing this movie, especially since last weekend was Ponyo and this weekend is Inglourious Basterds. I just need a space to open up -- or I may wait for the DVD on this one. UPDATE: now with video that fits and working links (my bad)]

Not to give away the ending, but this is less a review of District 9 than it is a hearty endorsement. It's really only the things that I like that drive me to write about them and I do so riding a wave of exultation, hoping that it will sweep up everyone around me. Why do I care about you schmucks, you say? What is it that makes me want you to enjoy what I have enjoyed? That's a good question. My effusiveness might surprise you if you ever met me in person – in general, I'm really quite a grump. It's an interesting phenomena and I'd like to explore it, but I've taken my on-topic pills and am committed to the task at hand.

So, knowing as you do now that I'm attempting to drive you to see this movie, what, you ask, is my carrot? As adverse to spoilers as I am, instead of discussing the merits of District 9 itself I'd like you to consider this to be an introduction to director Neill Blomkamp. This is his first feature film and his existing body of works is not very extensive, but it includes a few commercials that you may have seen, amongst them this “fuck you, Michael Bay ” from 2005:

Of the commercials and shorts that he's done, all are science fiction and all but one (series) are set on a present-day styled earth. The exception, a series of shorts based on the video game Halo, takes a violent setting in a far distant future and a story about a super-soldier single handedly devastating an evil alien force and does not make it all about flashy rayguns and fancy effects. What we have instead is something closer to a war movie, something more about confusion and frantic motion and pain than it is about fantastic technology. There are imaginary weapons and vehicles, yes, and yet despite these and the big hairy aliens, there's very little in these shorts really feels foreign.

This is all three of the shorts, cut together:

Not that there's anything wrong with flashy rayguns, you'd never catch me committing some heresy against Star Wars, but it isn't all that science fiction can be and, more than anything else, what Blomkamp's works feel like is a refresher - a reminder that breaking out of reality's confines doesn't have to mean taking the focus away from humans acting human.

So why would Blomkamp be doing Halo shorts anyway? Peter Jackson had recruited him to direct the Halo movie, a big-budgeted affair bound to be aggressively promoted, on the strength of the work that he had done independently. The shorts cover a portion of the events that take place between Halo 2 and Halo 3 and were partly a promotion for the third game - the final short came out on Sept. 24th, 2007, just before Halo 3's release on Sept. 25th. The other function of the shorts was an attempt to sell the movie to the studios, Fox and Universal, who had originally signed on to distribute the film but had balked, citing Blomkamp's inexperience with a project of that scope as the reason. Speculation says that the larger part of it, however, was the terms of the deal demanded by Microsoft. Regardless of the reason, the Halo movie was ultimately canceled, leaving Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp together but with no movie to produce.

Oh fate, you know just what I like.

So what did the two of them do? They decided to take one of Blomkamp's shorts and turn it into a movie. If you're still on the fence about District 9, I suggest that you watch Alive in Joburg instead of the trailer. The short is representative of both the subject matter and Blomkamp's style, while being entertaining in its own right and essentially spoiler free.

I've been trying to avoid discussing the movie itself, but I'm going to allow myself just a little bit here: Alive in Joburg is a low budget short with surprisingly decent but still obviously low budget effects. District 9 is a low (lowish - $30M) budget movie with a massive amount of special effects, 90% of the scenes contain CG aliens, and they're flawless. The aliens are gritty and dirty and belong to their environments so completely that it didn't occur to me to be impressed until after the movie was over. It becomes ever more difficult to justify legislation made to protect the expensive special effects orgy when something like this comes along and so vividly demonstrates that in losing the blockbuster we wouldn't actually lose anything at all.


The other difference with the short and the only significant spoiler that I'm going to give you: You may be saying to yourself, “Gee, that's all well and good but I'm not really up for a boring documentary.” Only a small portion of District 9 is done in a documentary style - the bulk of the movie is a narrative with appropriately compelling characters.


So that's my pitch. There are more shorts, however: I think that Tempbot is pretty charming, albeit sorta one-trick. He's done some music videos as well. If you're interested, this is a fairly complete list.

One last thing that I'll say about the movie - respect the R rating. Most of his stuff is family-friendly and Alive in Joburg is pretty innocuous, but this isn't.


finsof72 said...

Geoff-- though lukewarm reviews usually never stop me from seeing a movie I want to see, Inglorious Basterds works well as a piece of cinematic art, but the story, especially near the end, is so wishy-washy that it really sucks most of the entertainment value out of it.

Kevin said...

That's really interesting that he did that transforming car commercial. I remember seeing that and having high hopes for a Transformers movie. Ah, a more innocent and Michael Bay-free time...

God grant that they do a reboot of Transformers with Blomkamp at the helm some time in the future.