DISTRICT 9: Darfur for shrimp

Gripping, disgusting, fantastic, corny, sentimental, and unsound, District 9 is a smorgasbord of sensory experiences, designed to keep you engaged, enthralled, and mildly sea sick.

Wikus is an employee of Multi-National United (MNU), a private corporation charged with “managing” earth’s alien population. Management, we find out early on, entails the eviction of the 1.2 million aliens–derogatively called “prawns”–from their earthly dwelling. It’s the newly promoted Wikus who must cart the shrimp out of District 9 down the road to the much nicer concentration camp, aptly named District 10 (i.e., the Sequel-Nod).

The aliens came to earth 28 years ago and decided ominously to hover over, of all places, Johannesburg (That the director didn’t switch the location to New York suggests both the source material and the philosophical intentions of the film aren’t the usual summer blockbuster fare). After weeks of the alien ship sitting statically, the South African government cut a hole in the hull to find out what the hell was going on. What they found was a gaggle of malnourished, relatively docile alien beings very much resembling 8-foot shrimp (hence the nickname) with legs.

The shrimp were quarantined, and official legislation passed restricting both their movement and their rights. We find out quickly that the aliens are a bit faster and stronger than humans, but of roughly the same mental capacity. Unlike most science fiction films featuring alien invaders, therefore, the threat of the “other” is mild. The shrimp speak in garbled clicks, they form gangs, they like to gorge themselves on black-market cat food sold to them by the Nigerians, and they have weapons that respond only to alien touch (which the South African government want to use). But rather than wanting to destroy earth, the shrimp just want to leave.

Now, in the true spirit of High Horse, I’d like to explore some critical opinions espoused over the last few weeks. I like Pete Travers of The Rolling Stone who said, “District 9, with a chump-change budget of $30 million, soars on the imagination of its creators,” which is entirely true. The visuals are stunning, the alien weapons original, and the CG as well-integrated as in the much more expensive War of the Worlds from 2005. But the conflict and, to some degree, the loose political themes created by the writers and director are what drive the film. An “intimate epic” it is not. Trying to achieve too many things may account for most of the flaws. A sort of tongue-in-cheek irony combined with stomach turning violence suggests to me the shortcomings of District 9 aren’t analogous to Evil Dead accidentally taking itself too seriously, but rather, at times, the producers refusing to make difficult editing decisions.

I whole-heartedly agree with Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail who says, “[District 9] avoids well-traveled roads to blaze a trail both different and compelling. But then the trail disappears, leaving us with a yes-and-no movie. Yes, the premise is delightful; no, the delight doesn’t last.” In the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, District 9 attempts to be the scholar’s sci-fi flick. There are semi-profound comments on racial-profiling and apartheid, and the wall surrounding District 9 is nothing short of West Bankian. Director Neill Blomkamp does succeed in not beating his audience to death with morality lessons. But his extravagant use of violence very nearly buries the somewhat innovative plot.

I recommend District 9 to anyone with a decent constitution and an interest in science fiction. If you’re able to keep your expectations at bay and your lunch down, it’s a well-spent two hours. Again, it’s not a deep exploration of profound political themes, but sometimes a shallower exploration is more effective. Fans of The Fly and Alien will find themselves delighted and entertained. Fans of The Devil Came on Horseback and Hotel Rwanda might enjoy it, too, provided they’re also fans of The Fly and Alien.

Special Marketing Note: District 9 created a very clever viral marketing campaign and began using late in its campaign a new technology called “augmented reality” that promises to tickle the fancies of tech nerds everywhere.

By Elijah Jenkins

SIN NOMBRE: How Cary Fukunaga did what Danny Boyle couldn’t

Within the first fifteen minutes of Sin Nombre, El Casper (Edgar Flores), as a father might teach his son to hold a bat, helps the twelve-year-old El Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) shoot a captive, rival gang member in the face with a homemade pipe gun. Killing an enemy is the second right of passage into the Mara Salvatrucha brotherhood (the first is getting beaten by a group of men for thirteen seconds). In one of the few moments of reprieve in the film, the director Cary Fukunaga chooses not to show the actual dismembering of the body. But a moment later we see the entrails dropped into a bowl for the dogs to eat.

Sin Nombre is Fukunaga’s first feature effort. He has been deservedly applauded for his debut, if for no other reason than he’s a Scando-Japanese American, and his subjects in the film are Hispanic and speak colloquial Spanish. To work in Honduras and Mexico with a foreign cast is at the very least ambitious, and makes Joe Swanberg look cowardly for keeping his inert characters in an American bedroom. There is no timidity to Fukunaga’s style, nor is there much flare.

Compared to last years’ Slumdog Millionaire, in which Danny Boyle exhibited all the directorial tenderness of a suicide bomber, Sin Nombre is quieter—and more shocking. Trying to appreciate Boyle’s India was like touring Mumbai during a volcanic eruption. Boyle wouldn’t train the camera on a subject longer than it took to film a line of dialogue, and the frenetic pace was distracting rather than compelling. Even when the proprietor of the orphanage blinds one of his wards with acid, with the camera cutting back and forth, you feel at best a sentimental horror. But you don’t experience any more agony than you would smell curry had Boyle rubbed cardamon on the lens. The violence in Sin Nombre, though, as portrayed by the cinematographer Adriano Goldman, is austere, and the tragedies haunting the characters feel abrupt, senseless, and frightening; in other words, authentic.

Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though,  must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.

Sin Nombre, on the other hand, earns its catharsis. That’s in part because the ablution is less complete, and the expurged sins more abhorrent. The characters and their struggles seem real, in no small part because many of the actors hail from the neighborhoods where the film was shot. Some of the Mareros in the film are Mareros in real life; they didn’t need fake tattoos. But that is not to say the film is flawless. The acting is consistently solid, but Flores—the nucleus of Sin Nombre—as the quiet and brooding Casper, feels inaccessible. Even when he opens up, briefly near the end of the film, we see only a moment of warmth, and this softer disposition isn’t completely convincing. It’s preceded by too much unmitigated rage.

For all the murderers and rapists and rape victims that populate the film, only Lil Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), the leader of the local Mara Salvatrucha gang, displays exquisite dynamism. He vacillates between tenderness and brutality, and at his best, holds onto both emotions simultaneously. He is as ominous a character to look at as I can remember—his face is black with tattoos—but early in the film, while overseeing Casper and Smiley as they shoot the prisoner in the face, he holds his infant son proudly, kissing him on the forehead. The scene gains all its power from this juxtaposition of paternal love and unapologetic violence. The murder, made all the more horrible by the presence of the boy (who we know must grow up to be a killer like his father), lays out the ethics of the film: honor is paramount, and each life has a shifting, unequal value.

This is exceptionally difficult material to handle in a first film. If at the end I felt somewhat disconnected from El Casper—whom we follow from Tepachula to the Texas border—I wonder if it wasn’t Fukunaga’s intention. After all, Sin Nombre is not a film about absolution. It is about immigration and violence and the trappings of poverty. Rather than cauterizing wounds like Boyle did with Slumdog, Fukunaga opens them further. He doesn’t canonize his characters, because every act of heroism is bound to an act of cowardice. Accordingly, Sin Nombre is not a charming film. It doesn’t make you feel better for having seen it. And that’s why it’s important.

By James Kaelan