August 13, 2009

District 9 and the future of cinema

In the wake of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the internets has been buzzing about the decline of intelligence in the moviegoing public. Everyone from the Times' A.O. Scott to my own darling boyfriend are noting this trend. Basically, Americans are dumb and want their movies to be dumb too. Nothing but loud, clanging franchise movies are being greenlit. But tonight at a packed preview screening for the movie District 9, I saw a glimpse of the future. A way to have people rush out to see a movie that's actually thought-provoking.


Okay, not really. But kind of. What I really mean is:


When The Dark Knight came out, critics and audiences were trying to decipher what appeared to be a Big Message lurking under all that action. It was definitely political, but people weren't sure whether it was liberal or conservative. At any rate, I think Christopher Nolan's primary intention was just to make a really good Batman movie, and he threw this in to add some weight. And everyone and their mother saw this movie. Twice.

But with District 9, director Neil Blomkamp is taking that idea one step further. This movie is unquestionably and blatantly about the evils of racial intolerance. In the opening shots when a segregated alien slum of South Africa is presented, the educated folk in the audience go, "Oh, like apartheid. I see," and follow the metaphor through to the end. The less educated see the part where a mean military man is pointing a gun at an alien and saying something like (I'm paraphrasing) "I can't believe I get paid to kill you, you alien scum" and realize that hatred is bad, because they've kind of come to sympathize with the aliens by now. It reveals its message across the board, to any level of intelligence. It's almost impossible to miss.

Having said that, it still delivers plentiful action, horror and sci-fi. Neither element is at the expense of the other. They coexist. Was District 9 advertised as a movie with a message? Hell no. But by luring people in with they elements they like, you can sneak in the heavier stuff that makes it more than mindless entertainment. Like slipping medication into dog treats.

In fact, I've always thought metaphor movies were an underrated tool and mode of filmmaking. It shows that an idea or social phenomenon transcends a specific situation and can be applied to anything. If you showed a bigoted person a movie about the evils of apartheid, they wouldn't care. Even if you showed the cruelty and injustice that black people suffered, their minds are made up about black people and won't change. But if you show them District 9, these aliens are a blank slate to them. They don't have preexisting feelings towards this group, so the filmmaker can orchestrate sympathy or hostility to serve the film's purpose. I'm not saying this movie is going to change the world, or any movie like it. But it's a way to present ideas to people while keeping them open-minded. It also negates the "that could never happen here / now" mentality that people sometimes use to write off the atrocities of history.

The audience applauded riotously at the end of the screening. I don't know if they just liked things blowing up, or if maybe, just maybe, this movie appealed to them all the more because it had more to offer. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic here, but it gave me hope.

>****UPDATE***** I just saw Inglourious Basterds and it would appear that a similar strategy has been employed - the advertising promises 150 minutes of Brad Pitt scalping Nazis, whereas the actual film is a downright meditative period piece with mostly European actors speaking other languages (with a little bit of Brad Pitt scalping Nazis). Check out a good analysis here.


Unknown said...

I'm glad to hear this! I knew there were elements of politics and that apartheid footage was used, but i was a little bit apprehensive about it being too heavy-handed. I was really compelled by your argument when I read the Transformers piece, and agree with you wholeheartedly. GI Joe wasn't opened to critics, and we all know what that means. It has gotten to the point where I won't go to see blockbusters that I know are all visual and no narrative.

Thank you for the insight!

- Nicola

DGB said...

Yeah, it's a really well done flick with something to say. However, I don't think Hollywood is done with insipid movies just yet.

Anonymous said...

All I knew of this movie was the trailers. This is the first that I've read anything abt it.

And so far, it's encouraging that we wont entirely un-evolve to the Transformers genre. :)