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Posts Tagged ‘Sharlto Copley’

There was a point about fifteen or twenty years ago where you couldn’t move for big-screen adaptations of popular TV series from twenty or thirty years earlier. I don’t just mean the Star Trek movies, although these are particularly notable for their role in getting the show back on the telly for a very substantial run – there were also the Charlie’s Angels movies, Mission: Impossible (nowadays pretty much existing solely as a Tom Cruise vehicle), Scooby-Doo, Lost in Space, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice… even really obscure things like The Mod Squad and SWAT were dusted off and sent to the cinema. It almost got to the point where you were surprised when an old TV show wasn’t turned into a movie: apparently The Six Million Dollar Man got tied up in rights issues, thus possibly sparing us from a comedy version starring Jim Carrey, while the big-screen take on Knight Rider hit a snag when mooted star Orlando Bloom declared his role as David Hasselhoff’s son to be insufficiently demanding for an actor of his abilities (now that’s a criticism).

It’s fairly self-evident that some of these movies took a distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the TV shows that spawned them, which I must confess that I wasn’t always a particular fan of, although this probably depended on how much I enjoyed the original programme. Of course, there are worse things than being irreverent, as I discovered in 2010 when Joe Carnahan’s big-screen version of The A-Team finally arrived (I say ‘finally’ as the movie had been in development for fifteen years, arriving notably after the peak of the small-to-big-screen-transfer craze).

The film opens in Mexico, presumably in the early 2000s, where hard-bitten US Army Ranger Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson) is intent on bringing a corrupt local general to justice. In order to do so he must first rescue his sidekick, a smooth-talking lothario nicknamed Face (Bradley Cooper). But Hannibal doesn’t have a ride! His only option is to carjack the first person who happens along. This turns out to be bad-tempered mechanic B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), who is driving along in his beloved red and black van minding his own business. Hannibal shoots B.A., just a little bit, to prove he is serious about the carjacking, but then notices B.A. has a Ranger tattoo just like his. What are the chances? Such is the bond of comradeship between US Rangers that B.A. completely overlooks Hannibal shooting him and off they go to rescue Face together. (No, really. And this is just the first ten minutes.)

Having saved Face from being barbecued alive, the next priority is to get out of the country, which they do by borrowing a helicopter from an army hospital. But who is to fly it? Well, it turns out that one of the patients has an outstanding record as a combat pilot, the problem is he’s just completely insane. Yes, it is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and he whisks them all off to safety.

Your heart sinks a bit as this opening section concludes, because you realise it has nothing – nothing! – to do with the rest of the plot, and is just there to show how the four members of the A-Team first met (the movie doesn’t bother including any of the non-core characters from the TV show). Why have they bothered to do this? It is puzzling – the premise of the story is that the characters all have a background in the military; it’s not like you have to contrive a way to get them all together.

Well, anyway, we then jump forward to the present day where the A-Team are hanging out in Iraq having done their bit to bring long-term peace and stability to the Middle East (‘You guys are the best!’ Hannibal tells some local soldiers he’s been training). But then word reaches them of some forged plates for making counterfeit American money which are due to be smuggled out of Baghdad very soon. A convoluted jurisdictional tussle breaks out between US army intelligence, the CIA, and private security firms over who is going to capture the plates, involving slippery CIA dude Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Face’s old girlfriend (Jessica Biel), who’s in military intelligence. Needless to say the A-Team are given the nod to go ahead with the op.

However, they have been set up, it all goes bad, the plates disappear and their authorisation for the mission disappears in a ball of flame. As a result they are all court-martialled and sent to four different glasshouses to serve their sentences (Murdock is even sent to Europe, though this also serves the plot). But Lynch approaches Hannibal with a proposition: if he can retrieve the plates and find the man who stole them, Lynch can bust him out of jail and see to it he and the team get a full pardon…

Now, I was discussing the state of modern TV with a friend the other day and really lamenting the fact that hardly anybody does episodic television any more: nearly every programme is essentially serialised to some degree or other, making it a lot harder to dip in and out of them. I do think there is a certain craft and skill involved in making this kind of entertainment, certainly for the long haul, and that this kind of show had its own particular charm.

On the other hand, I am currently between jobs which means I can, if I so choose, watch three episodes of The A-Team on re-run, most days, and in this situation you do very quickly realise that the bare bones of the series’ format were seldom very deeply covered. The plot of an episode of The A-Team nearly always goes something like this:  a small mom & pop outfit somewhere nondescript is being bullied by small-time hoods. One of the victims makes tentative contact with the team and manages to hire them. The next time the hoods show up, they are properly slapped about by Hannibal and the others. There is a plot twist where it turns out the hoods have a bigger plan which bullying mom & pop is only a small part of, followed by a reversal which sees the bad guys locking the A-Team in a garage with a lot of welding gear and washing-machine parts. The A-Team build an armoured car or helicopter gunship out of the washing-machine parts and blast their way to freedom for the climax. They proceed to fire 37,000 rounds of .223 ammunition at the bad guys, destroying all inanimate objects in a half-mile radius but leaving their human opponents miraculously unscathed. The bad guys go to jail and the A-Team are paid their (presumably hefty) fee: there are smiles all round.

(Mixed in with this are the scenes where the individual team members get to do their schticks – Hannibal puts on a ridiculous disguise, Face either scams someone or romances the only female character, B.A. snarls a lot and says something motivational to a child, and Murdock – well, Murdock’s schtick is that he gets a different schtick every week, so it depends.)

There are coats of varnish with greater depth to them than the typical A-Team script, but while this is undeniably schlock TV aimed at the very young and the very undemanding, it remains oddly likeable and perhaps even watchable (up to a point at least). The movie’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be schlock, but hasn’t figured out a way to not be schlock while still remaining recognisable as The A-Team. The problem isn’t just that the film opens with a sequence providing unnecessary back-story for the team: the whole movie is unnecessary back-story for the team, as it concludes with them just about to commence their careers as good-hearted soldiers-of-fortune operating on US soil, at which point all the familiar A-Team plot beats will presumably start to occur and it will genuinely begin to resemble the TV show. (I mean, the movie is two hours long and the most prominent use of the theme music is diegetic. Also, they write off the A-Team van in the opening sequence. I mean, really…)

But as it is, it’s like the A-Team have accidentally wandered into a particularly downbeat Mission: Impossible movie, or possibly a Bourne, where they keep going off to Germany and getting double-crossed. You don’t expect to have to work quite so hard to follow the plot of The A-Team, to be honest, but there’s a lot of slightly baffling exposition going on here (‘I found it a little confusing and I was in it,’ Liam Neeson later commented). Plus there’s a subplot where Face doubts his own ability to put a plan together, and another one where B.A. becomes a pacifist… the writers don’t seem to have realised that to give these characters extra depth is to lose what makes them recognisable and distinctive. You do wonder about the extent to which the success of the TV show was just down to the charisma of the main four leads, the simple pleasure of watching stuff blow up, and how reassuringly predictable it all was to watch.

If the movie never quite feels like the A-Team TV show, an equally big problem is that it never really feels like a very good movie, either. Quite apart from the problems with the plot, the action sequences are not particularly spectacular or exciting, and the use of CGI is also quite obvious. The performances, I should say, are not bad, given the material the actors have to work with, but they are fighting a losing battle from the beginning of the film to the end.

George Peppard was long gone by the time the movie came out, and Mr T refused to take part, but the other two original cast members (Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz) do turn up for cameos – however, these don’t appear until the very end of the closing credits. Supposedly this was for timing reasons, but there is something very odd about this sequence – it feels grudging and uneasy, almost like a contractual obligation. The movie seems to have little interest in or affection for the original TV show, so why else would the film-makers have invited the cast back? This film was underwhelming at the time, joyless and dour where the TV series was silly but diverting. It would probably be quite difficult to make a big-screen A-Team that was both faithful to the show but also good, but the movie shows that doing one which is at least as bad as the TV series while barely resembling it and having little of its entertainment value was entirely possible.

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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You might be forgiven for thinking that yet another film about robotics and AI couldn’t help but feel a bit repetitive and over-familiar, following the plethora of movies on this topic. You might be forgiven for thinking that Neill Blomkamp’s particular kind of socially-conscious, photorealistic-VFX-driven SF movie might equally be starting to lose its novelty value, given both District 9 and Elysium stuck reasonably closely to the same formula. You might even be forgiven for thinking that the only kind of genre movie coming out at this time of year would be the least ambitious and inventive kind. But I think you would be wrong, because Blomkamp’s Chappie is none of these things.

chappie

The story is set in a (very) near future South Africa, where a soaring crime rate has led to the introduction of robotic police auxiliaries, designed by idealistic young scientist Deon (Dev Patel) and produced by the company of Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) – all this is rather to the chagrin of ex-military designer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), whose own heavy-duty robot drones have been somewhat sidelined as a result.

However, Deon has higher aspirations than corporate profits, and is quietly working on a project to create true artificial intelligence. Bradley, needless to say, can’t see the benefit in a robot poet, or indeed any machine that can think for itself, and so Deon ends up having to install his AI in a junked chassis heading for the scrapheap.

Things get somewhat fraught as Deon and his project fall into the hands of a group of rather desperate gangsters looking for an edge against the robot police. A deal is struck where Deon is allowed to help educate the now-sentient droid, christened Chappie by his unlikely foster parents, in return for the gangsters being allowed to make use of it in an upcoming robbery. (Chappie is mo-capped and voiced by Blomkamp’s regular collaborator Sharlto Copley.) But Vincent has also got wind of what Deon is up to, and has spied an opportunity to strike a blow against the whole programme, giving his own machine an opportunity to shine…

As mentioned, there seem to have been a lot of films on this sort of topic lately – we had Ex Machina out only a few weeks ago, after all. And Chappie, on the face of it, a pretty derivative piece of work, an action thriller very reminiscent of any version of RoboCop you care to mention, to some extent retreading Blomkamp’s other films. I feel obliged to mention that Chappie has been the recipient of some rather mixed reviews, and I can sort of see why: the plotting is a little contrived in a number of places, and there’s a distinct sense of the director battling to keep all the various plot strands under control as the story continues. The film does have a very rough-around-the-edges feel, which is perhaps increased by the decision to cast rappers in a couple of pivotal roles – their characters are named after their stage personae, which is an admittedly very odd decision, but in the final analysis both Anri du Toit and Watkin Tudor Jones give quite effective and even moving performances. (This is just as well, as they are probably rather more prominent in the film than the ostensible ‘star names’ of Weaver and Jackman.)

That said, the most eye-catching contribution is from Copley and the special-effects team, who together manage to make Chappie a remarkably affecting and human character. They are helped by a script which manages to wring a considerable amount of poignancy and humour from the scenario – in the final analysis, this is still essentially an SF action movie (and the director handles the heavy-duty hardware-based crash-bang-wallop with casual aplomb), but there is a lot of droll comedy along the way, together with some surprisingly moving moments. (All of it is driven along by a great retro-synth soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.)

All this means that when the film touches upon deeper and more serious concerns, it’s as part of a story which already has you engrossed (if you’re anything like me, at least), rather than one which just functions as some sort of abstract and cerebral meditation on a particular theme. At one point a distraught Chappie asks Deon why he chose to create him with a body which will inevitably fail, leading to his cessation as a conscious being, and what’s previously been a sort of grimy roughneck action-comedy is suddenly considering humanity’s relationship with God and the nature of mortality, and the shift in perspective is both dizzying and exhilarating. There’s a touch of religion-bashing in the film, which is perhaps regrettably predictable, but set against this is the film’s general philosophy that it’s not your nature or your position in society that defines who you are, but the choices that you make: meeting and taking responsibility for Chappie leads to the redemption of a couple of characters who were initially unsympathetic scumbags, and this is convincingly done. The plot takes a sharp turn in the third act which perhaps strains credibility a bit, but not insuperably so.

In the end Chappie isn’t just another film about AI, but one about what it means to be human, which is surely a more profound question. That it does so with some skill and subtlety within the framework of an extremely accomplished action thriller is a pretty neat trick. In many ways Blomkamp’s adroit skipping between the different strands of drama, comedy, and action recalls District 9, and for me this is a more impressive film than Elysium, even if one wonders quite how long he can keep knocking out limitations on a relatively limited stylistic and narrative theme. But, of course, the release publicity for Chappie has been dominated by the news that Blomkamp and Weaver look set to work again on a new instalment in the Alien franchise: something which has a large number of people very excited indeed. I don’t know. Yet more Alien sequels interest me about as much as the threatened string of annual Star Wars cash-ins, and I’d much rather directors like Neill Blomkamp were working on their own original projects. Chappie is by no means perfect, but it is still a proper SF movie with a lot going for it – I wish we had many more films like this.

 

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When someone comes straight out of the trap and makes a brilliant, brilliant film at the first attempt, you’re naturally delighted, but also perhaps a little wary: could they have peaked too soon? How can they live up to the weight of expectation thus created? This was kind of how I felt when Neill Blomkamp announced himself to the world with District 9 four years ago: one of the great SF movies of the 21st century. Now he has returned with Elysium, a film which – if we’re honest – perhaps cleaves a little too closely to District 9 in terms of its content, theme, imagery and style.

ely

On the other hand, this is a major studio release with a big budget and A-list stars, and an accordingly conventional feel in places: which is to say that in places it quotes liberally from the Big Book of SF Cliches, starting with the voice-over explaining how the world went to rack and ruin in the latter part of the 21st century. By the mid 2150s anyone with money and sense has left the planet and is resident on Elysium, a space habitat in Earth orbit, where they all live the life of Riley with swimming pools and non-stop garden parties. Down below on Earth, of course, no-one has even seen a cucumber sandwich in decades, with the majority of the population trapped in vast, squalid slums while a lucky few toil away in degrading, menial jobs. The proles are policed by brutal robot enforcers, backed up by the occasional human operative.

Anyway: our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon, who – bemusingly – was only offered the part after Eminem turned it down), a petty crook turned factory worker. Once he had dreams of moving to Elysium himself along with his friend Frey (Alice Braga), but now he has accepted that it’s just not going to happen and his life is essentially worthless. However, receiving a fatal dose of radiation in an industrial accident leads Max to reconsider this – he has only days to live, unless he can avail himself of the miraculous medical assistance available up on Elysium. But how to get there? Hooking up with an old pal who still has underworld connections, Max agrees to take on the dangerous job of stealing the contents of the brain of a top Elysium tycoon, in return for which he will be smuggled up to the Orbital.

It’s a lot less like Inception than it sounds, I promise. What follows is somewhat complex, mainly due to the political machinations of Elysium’s icy security chief (Jodie Foster) and the violent excesses of her chief agent (Sharlto Copley giving another eye-catching performance), and not without a few improbabilities along the way. But in the end, in many ways it adheres to the District 9 template, in that it is a serious, good-looking SF movie with striking visuals, fun gadgets and technology, and a nice line in violent mayhem. What’s missing is the black humour and the wit and invention of the earlier movie – convoluted though the story gets, the actual throughline in terms of characters arcs is very straightforward, and I guessed the ending about halfway through (and it isn’t even as if I sit there trying to anticipate these things).

I don’t want to be too hard on Elysium as it is a proper SF movie for grown-ups, not a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or too obviously derivative of any other movie in particular: and that really does make it quite distinctive these days. (It’s also arguably the first really good cyberpunk movie in ages, long after Hollywood seemed to have given up on the subgenre and moved on.) The production designs are beautiful and the technology, on the whole, convincing – although Copley’s pocket force-field generator seemed to me to be a little too Star Trek. And central to the advertising, though not really essential to the story, is the cyborg exoskeleton into which Max is plumbed quite early on. I get the impression this was more of an idea Blomkamp thought was cool than anything else, because as plot devices go it doesn’t really do much. (As Damon is surgically bonded with it through his clothes, I found myself wondering what he did when he needed to, er, take his trousers off. The film has loftier concerns, needless to say.)

I suppose that in the end, part of my dissatisfaction with Elysium stems from the slightly hackneyed script, but also because the film does that mildly annoying thing of not wanting to be just a dumb SF action film and then never quite following through on its ambition. It’s a bit like In Time in that you don’t need to be John Clute to figure out that the movie’s world of haves and have-nots, with limitless medical care and support for a few and barely anything for the rest (and the differences between life on Earth and that on the Orbital and presented almost solely in terms of the healthcare available), is a thinly-disguised commentary on the state of healthcare availability in much of the real world. You’re never in doubt that where the film’s heart is at – like any other decent person with a brain and a soul, Blomkamp clearly thinks that free universal healthcare should be a no-brainer for any civilised society worthy of the name. And yet for a film apparently aspiring to address a real-world problem, it doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of real-world solutions. The film’s argument in favour of universal healthcare is almost entirely sentimental, and implied at that – the plot is actually resolved by a big action sequence, a Maguffin, and some computer hacking. Quite what’s going to stop the original status quo being restored PDQ is not made clear, unless the characters at the end of the film are now living in a socialist state governed and enforced solely by machines: an unusual conclusion for an American-financed SF blockbuster, to say the least.

I think I’m being too harsh on a film which is well made, directed, and acted, and the sentiments of which I broadly agree with. And, after all, Elysium is a big-budget socialist cyberpunk movie, which manages to comment on the state of the world’s healthcare while still including men in cyborg exo-skeletons having fistfights in space. So it has a certain sort of uniqueness to its credit, if nothing else. Creditable: that’s a good word for Elysium. It’s no District 9, certainly: but it’s a lot better than the likes of the Total Recall remake, too. I would applaud it for its ambitions rather than dismissing it for failing to realise them perfectly.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 17th September 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that brings a new meaning to the words ‘semi-regular’. We still have a couple of years to wait before Christmas is Tolkien time again, but there’s still ample proof of the talent and good judgement of Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films around in the form of Neill Blomkamp’s remarkable District 9. (Apparently Blomkamp was at a loose end one day when Jackson turned up and said ‘Here’s 30 million dollars, mate, do whatever you like with it.’ If you’re reading this, Pete, my address is…)

Set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, this is an ambitious and startling SF movie. The premise is that the world changed forever in the early 1980s when a vast alien starship suddenly appeared in the sky above Johannesburg. Upon boarding the ship, the authorities discovered it contained only malnourished and apparently dim-witted giant insects. The aliens (nicknamed ‘Prawns’ by the humans) were relocated to a holding camp in the city (the ‘District 9’ of the title), which rapidly turned into a slum as the visitors became a fact of life in the city. Now, many years later, the humans have become sick of the presence of the aliens in their midst and are planning to relocate them to a new camp many kilometres away. The corporation charged with overseeing their eviction is preparing to move in, with field operations supposedly the responsibility of well-meaning administrator Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). However, some of the aliens have their own relocation plans, and this will have a life-changing effect on Wikus and those around him…

My first impression on seeing the trailers for this movie was that it looked extremely technically proficient in its blending of documentary-style camerawork and extensive use of CGI, but that the central idea was… well, it’s not a million light-years away from the back-story to Alien Nation, even down to the aliens being given vaguely absurd human names, while the social commentary (the South African government treats the inhabitants of slums and townships as if they aren’t even human) had the potential to be even less subtle than that in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Yes, these are issues unlikely to trouble the average multiplex habitué, and yes, I have probably spent too much time watching old science fiction movies, but happily, the movie itself only uses this scenario as a launchpad for an accomplished mixture of action, drama, and black comedy.

To start with the thing it most closely resembles is a jet-black and slightly surreal version of The Office as the hapless Wikus explains who he is and what his work entails. It’s a testament to the film-makers’ skill that the realisation that while Wikus tries to do his job conscientiously and is fairly decent to his workmates, his job has actually brutalised him to a considerable degree only happens very gradually. He’s actually fairly unsympathetic at this point, which makes the achievement of the rest of the film, where he’s transformed into someone you actually feel for, even a bit of a hero, all the more impressive.

Copley gives a tremendous performance, especially given that this is really his first acting part of any scope (he was a producer before this). On top of that he improvised all his own dialogue in this movie, even if he does use the F-word or some variant of it about 137 times (someone else counted, not me). At this point I was about to say that he can look forward to the fate of all foreigners who give great leading performances in movies from outside the States and UK (namely, to be a given a wacky supporting role in a bad Hollywood action flick), but they’ve beaten me to it: he’s already in talks for the big-screen version of The A-Team. Sigh…

Wikus’ story is at the centre of the film but every bit of it seems to have had the same care and attention to detail spent on it by the director. District 9 and the world around it are wholly believable, in a thoroughly depressing way, from Wikus’ employers, to the mercenaries he has to work alongside (a good performance as their leader from David James), to the Nigerian gangsters who also exploit the Prawns, to the aliens themselves. The effects shot of the alien ship over the city is surely an icon-in-the-making, and if (as I hear tell) $30 million is bargain basement stuff where a movie’s concerned these days, it doesn’t show here. Possibly the most memorable character in the film is an unnamed child Prawn who manages to be effortlessly cute without being twee and while looking like something I’d normally squirt with lemon juice and eat.

The social commentary tract that District 9‘s trailer promised is thankfully kept pretty much in the background, though given the nature of the film it’s pretty much inescapable. It’s hard to accuse a film, the climax of which revolves around a gun battle between heavily-armed mercenaries and a giant death-ray toting mecha, of being too worthy or highbrow, to say nothing of the rather high horror and gore quotient in the course of events.

On paper it looks like the makers of this film have set out to make a film to appeal to the widest possible demographic, with satire, humour, drama, horror, not-too-challenging SF and action all central to the story. And while this is true, I never got the sense that this was done in anything like a calculated way; they just seem to have told a story that they really fell in love with, and done it in the best way they could. The results are highly impressive and Blomkamp and Copley are officially added to the 24LAS list of Guys To Keep An Eye On In Future.

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