Film Friday: ‘District 9’ & ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’

by W. Andrew Powell

Sharlto Copley in District 9

Sharlto Copley in District 9

Debuting in theatres this week, Neill Blomkamp delivers one of the best films of the year with his sci-fi alien actioner, District 9. Also in theatres, romance blossoms across the years in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jeremy Piven sells cars and finds love in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, and Vanessa Hudgens stars in the teen music comedy, Bandslam.

District 9
Last week I stated my case: the summer of 2009 has been a huge disappointment in terms of popcorn movies. This week though, I have some good news with director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a sci-fi film that is so good, it might be the best movie I’ve seen all year.

Shot documentary-style, Blomkamp’s film is set in Johannesburg, South Africa where a massive space ship has parked itself above the city. With no movement, humans cut open the ship to discover thousands of aliens, who look like a cross between a human and a lobster, surviving in their own filth.

With the ship completely inoperable, the company Multi-National United steps forward to deal with the refugees, creating the equivalent of a barricaded slum for the aliens and locking them away from the rest of the city who have come to resent and revile the intruders.

Dubbed “prawns”, the alien refugees are left to fend for themselves in a shanty town where they sell their technology to human slumlords for cat food, a delicacy among the aliens. Meanwhile, MNU are not the simple peacekeepers of the situation and are working to unlock the secrets of alien weapons that have been confiscated and were made to only work with alien DNA.

Set some twenty years after the aliens first arrived, the movie starts as Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a harassed paper-pusher at the MNU who is far out of his depth, has been charged with evicting the prawn from District 9 and moving them to a new holding area far outside of the city. Backed up by MNU militia, Wikus handles the situation poorly and ends up contaminating himself with a fluid that begins an awful process, slowly transforming him into a half-prawn mutant.

Much like Wikus, District 9 is a bit of a mutant itself, crossing the lines between a brainy sci-fi drama, and an all-out action film. The trick is that it avoids the usual plot points and instead leaps at every chance to do something different. That goes as much for the performances as it does for the script, cinematography, and special effects; a rare accomplishment for a sci-fi film.

Although the film deals with xenophobia and racism at its core, District 9 is not necessarily a film with a message. It deals with the issues without browbeating, leaping between issues and never really sticking to conventions. At the same time, the film really all comes down to Copley, who is a marvellous star, transforming Wikus from the desk-jokey to… something else. Copley’s transformation across the film is utterly spectacular in the way that he turns this irresolute but daft lackey into a brand new man.

Coming at the end of the summer, District 9 is a perfect cap on the season, proving once again that it only takes brains and talent to make a great movie. With budget of just $30 million, a meagre sum for this kind of film, the special effects are nearly perfect, and the film looks fantastic from end to end.

If you’re in the market to be wowed, District 9 is a must see movie, and also makes me anxious to see what Blomkamp has in store for us next.

Also opening this week…

The Time Traveler’s Wife
Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams star in this adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s popular novel of the same name about a man with a genetic problem that causes him to inexplicably travel through time.

Directed by Robert Schwentke, and produced by Brad Pitt, the film follows Clare (McAdams) as she tries to build a life around a man who is often not around. Henry (Bana), can’t control where he goes as he travels across the years of his life, meeting Clare for a time and then disappearing again.

While the premise of the film is intriguing, and the book certainly has been a hit, the film has received weak reviews from most critics. Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune called it “An uninspired alternative to comic book pandemonium and solemn family dramas, a gloppy serving of late summer corn.”

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard
Also receiving poor reviews this week is Jeremy Piven’s The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, a comedy about an off-kilter salesman charged with selling every single car at a local dealership. The salesman with his love of selling, drinking, and carousing may be in for a shock though as he finds something new: the love of his life.

Easily the weakest debut this week, The Goods is ranked universally low, coming in at 13% among critics. As Keith Phipps of the AV Club wrote, “Funny ideas bubble up from time to time only to disappear into a morass of stripper jokes and desperation.”

The odd little shocker of the week is this little musical comedy starring Vanessa Hudgens and Alyson Michalka in the story of a fledgling rock band trying to make a name for themselves in a battle of the bands. With egos at stake, the band has a lot to prove, and have a big decision to make in the end even as romance blossoms between two of the rockers.

Writer Rob Nelson of Variety called Bandslam, “An awkward, earnest, almost irresistible indie.”

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