Friday, August 14, 2009

DISTRICT 9: Nice idea, critically oversold, underwhelms in the extreme


Was it the extra-low budget -- compared to that of the latest Transformers -- that turned so many critical minds to the "off" setting? Well, OK: Let's applaud the smart of use of funds, sets and such to create good special effects. Or was it the movie's place-specific "backstory" of extra-
terrestrial aliens landing in South Africa and being quickly herded into what looks alarmingly like "townships"?


Interesting, yes, but it seems a bit manufactured and manipulative. I'm all for a good symbol, but what is this a symbol of? We clearly must be in the future, as the South Africa we see here seems quite assimi-
lated. Is there something in the South African soil that breeds apartheid? T'would seem so.

Otherwise DISTRICT 9, the sci-fi flick funded by Peter Jackson and directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp (shown at right) that has opened to rapturous reviews and the cover of Entertainment Weekly is a relatively smart idea housed in a bundle of space-alien/chase-thriller clichés, beginning with the faux newsreel/TV coverage that presents the entire backstory, which is followed by way too many shockingly unbelievable moments. Examples? Just two guys -- our "hero" and his alien pal -- break into the heart of the country's most secret and secure scientific facility and blithely take care of any and all obstacles. And, as usual, the bad guys stop shooting just long enough for the good guys to have their necessary conversations. The government, shock of shocks, is simply using its own citizens, particularly our hero, as fodder for its needs and is, even worse, behind some nefarious medical experiments on our poor aliens. I could continue, but see for yourself (and you surely will -- given those reviews).

The movie certainly moves fast but, at its nearly two-hour length, goes on a good 20-minutes too long. The hand-held camera work moves from dizzying to wearying fast (cinematography is by Trent Opaloch), and the overwrought lighting and scrawny production values had me fidgeting in my seat well before I normally would. The aliens, however, are imaginatively done (see above and below); they look real enough and move well, too. (The human populace refers to them as "prawns," due to their crustacean-like appearance.) Should the movie manage to grab you, as it did not grab me, it may well hold you. If not, you're likely to find things such as the alien father-son subplot and the spousal-memento moment that closes the movie sentimental hogwash because neither is given the kind of specificity and smart writing that would allow it to rise above the level of the all-too-typical.

Having said all this, I have to admit to seeing the film in perhaps the worst movie theater I've had the misfortune to attend in a long while: the New Center Cinema in Sunnyside, Queens. At the first show today, the staff could not have been nicer, from the ticket seller to the ticket taker and concession stand people. But the quality of the theater was dismal. Floors that your feet stick to, and a screen-size that clearly did not match the size of the movie print. What you see is something akin to what you get at home on your wide-screen TV when you hit the Zoom button: the image is too large, so that certain TV station logos that ought to be visible and even some subtitles (the alien "language," as cliché-ridden as everything else, is subtitled here) sometimes disappear off-screen.

The theater's projection quality is very poor; there's a noticeable lack of contrast and brightness is way off. The sound is bad, too. Perhaps because this movie house was originally a single screen made into, first, a tri-plex and now into a five-plex house, the sound is turned low enough so it will not impact the adjacent screens. That's fine, but it also proves not quite high enough to consistently hear the dialog. With District 9's characters all speaking in South African accents, this is not an ideal situation. I won't set foot in this theater again, certainly. While the $5 matinee price seemed enticing, I guess the old saw is still true: You get what you pay for.

I will probably rent the movie, however, once it's out on DVD and give it another try. But the bloom, as they say, is certainly off this rose. Perhaps the few months wait-time between movie and DVD will allow me to approach it with a fresh eye.

District 9 open nationwide today from Sony Pictures/TriStar on over 3,000 screens. If this one's not playing at a nearby theater, you must live... on an alien planet?

(Photos are from the film itself, except that of Mr. Blomkamp,
which was taken at a recent comic book convention and
borrowed from the IMDB link for the movie-maker.)

2 comments:

Matt G said...

Wow--I was actually tempted to go see this, but will def downgrade to NFlix status now!

James van Maanen, said...

You're trusting TrustMovies, Matt? (Nice to hear from you, by the way.) I am fairly certain that half of my displeasure came from the movie theatre in which I had to watch the film, so I, too, will try it again, when Netflix gets it. I'll be interested in your opinion, post-viewing....