In ‘District 9,’ you’ll feel the alienation

Posted Aug. 20, 2009, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

DISTRICT 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, 111 minutes, rated R.

Neill Blomkamp’s science-fiction movie, “District 9,” has an intriguing twist. It’s about how nearly 2 million misplaced aliens from outer space find themselves stuck on planet Earth. Given the state of the world, you can imagine how unpleasant that could be, but here’s the thing — instead of us worrying about what they might do to us, this film is more concerned about what we’re doing to them.

Sound ingenious? It is.

In fact, the movie is laced with so many pockets of fresh thinking, it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings, most of which come at the start and are dispensed with as soon as the movie reveals its themes, which are reflected back on audiences in ways that often cut uncomfortably close to home.

Here is a sci-fi movie whose core question comes down to this — who is the monster in this monster movie? Them or us?

Given the rough way the aliens are treated in District 9, a fenced shantytown coming apart at the seams in Johannesburg, South Africa (the apartheid references abound), there is no question that it’s us. The way humans treat the aliens is barbaric.

After all, for years, these “prawns,” as they’re derogatorialy called, have been housed in a chaotic, crime-ridden dump while their massive mothership hovers lifelessly above the cityscape.

Meanwhile, the residents and the government of Johannesburg try to deal with them, often abusively, and tensions are rising. To negate them, a movement is afoot to transplant the aliens outside the city, where they presumably will bother no one.

Heading that charge is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bumbling caricature at first (and an irritating one at that) who works for Multi-National United, though he comes off as such an idiot, you’d wonder how he got the job at all if it wasn’t revealed that he’s married to the daughter (Vanessa Haywood) of one of the corporation’s bigwigs.

The job facing Wikus is massive and dangerous. Backed by armed forces, he and his team must go door to door in an effort to get the aliens to sign eviction notices. Tensions rise even higher. Those who refuse to move are literally obliterated. Those who agree usually do so only because there’s a gun in their face.

Chaos is about to explode when Wikus accidentally sprays himself with an alien-created virus that has the unfortunate side effect of gradually turning him into one of them.

And here is where the movie starts to hum.

Now that he’s infected and physically undergoing a bug-like metamorphosis, Wikus shakes off the trappings of caricature and becomes a more believable character. Now, he’s someone you pull for, particularly because he’s a good man who wants to do right by the aliens, two of whom — a father and a son — are critical to the way the movie’s story unfolds.

This low-budget film with its unknown cast is recommended viewing because it ultimately is thought-provoking and smart. This isn’t a sci-fi thriller so much as it is a sci-fi drama. It poses several serious questions about the state of humanity, many of which go unanswered. It sees outside of the genre and works hard to create something new. It considers the situation it poses seriously, understands the cold limitations and brutality of man, and brings together a gathering storm of political unrest, bloodshed and personal change that linger long after the film is over.

Grade: B

On DVD and Blu-ray

ADVENTURELAND, written and directed by Greg Mottola, 107 minutes, rated R.

Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” is one of the best, most satisfying teen-oriented coming-of-age comedies to come along in awhile.

The movie serves two demographics: those who grew up in the late 1980s and fondly remember all the possibilities of that time (even if you weren’t aware of those possibilities at the time), and those present-day twentysomethings who just now are finding that out.

Mottola based the movie on his own script, and what he has mined from it is a film of surprising restraint — at least when it comes to the affections that bloom between its main characters, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) and Em (Kristen Stewart), who find themselves slumming through bum summer jobs at a Pittsburgh theme park called Adventureland during the summer of 1987.

In their college years, Em soon will be back at NYU and James plans to attend graduate school at Columbia. Beyond that, what they have in common is a quick, understated wit that suggests a fine pairing is at hand if only they can work things out.

In this movie, it’s the supporting characters that provide the antics and the energy, which is a shrewd move on Mottola’s part because it allows James and Em to generate something real during the brief time we spend with them onscreen.

Though their romance is budding, each is being pulled in different directions: Em by the married mechanic (Ryan Reynolds) she’s having an affair with; and James by the vivacious Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva, perfect), who recalls any number of second-rate backup dancers for Prince but who nevertheless is coveted by every young man working at the park.

Some will argue the movie is too slight to be significant and its characters don’t possess enough depth to be interesting, but they’re missing the point.

“Adventureland” is a slice-of-life vignette designed to offer only a glimpse into something deeper. We enter into it on the verge of one memorable summer, we observe what transpires within those few months, and then we leave the characters on the cusp of change in what you sense will be a more profound story that will play offscreen.

Mottola’s movie has sweetness and relevancy.

It’s a movie that understands its characters and their generation. It refuses to condescend to either, and so it just goes along with both, following James, Em and company through the highs and lows of one of those eventful summers you somehow get through, and tend to remember with fondness long after it has passed.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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