Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified.
District 9 (2009)
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There was something mythic about director Neill Blomkamp upon the release of his first film. He was this South African filmmaker who was picked up by Peter Jackson and even managed to earn some Oscar nominations along the way. He was a force that seemed to promise a change to the sci-fi community. Suddenly he filled his movies with purpose and subtext in powerful ways, hoping to find a deeper core to what cinema could be. He may have never been considered the best, but his promising talents a mere six years ago means that he was always going to be set up for a strange and potentially overexamined career.
With his latest Chappie, he explores how human interaction with intelligent life can possibly go. For the most part, it has gotten lambasted as yet another Blomkamp movie that isn't all that good. With him coming out and apologizing for the flawed Elysium, there's concern on whether or not he will be able to have a longevity worth noting. However, there's something more indicative when his latest film is somehow being compared almost note for note to his first film, which was the impressive District 9. In a lot of cases, the selection this week is very obvious down to the cast and crew behind it. However, it also feels worthy of noting.
It is hard to fully appreciate District 9 in hindsight. Most have come out of the woodwork to complain about how Blomkamp has never been interesting. However, there's something to his first film that feels promising even upon the passage of time. Its Best Picture nomination couldn't have been a random occurrence. In fact, his main protege Sharlto Copley was also once a newbie that didn't get accused of consistent overacting. True, this is a film where he slowly turns into an alien, but there was something reserved about it. Was it just an exploitation of formula, or is there a deeper reasoning why District 9 has worked where Elysium didn't and why people complain about Chappie.
The one realization is that Blomkamp has always been a high concept person. In his debut, he turns African politics and segregation into a tale of understanding. Thankfully, Copley brings a humor to the film and the story moves briskly through various moments. Maybe Elysium suffered from being too focused on action over story. However, there's a nice balance here that involves an odd understanding of having to change your life simply because something isn't working out. Copley becomes infected and is forced to live in the alien community where he learns a lot more about their society than he expected. To summarize, it was a study on race relations in a way that may be a little offensive if looked at too much, but is nonetheless ambitious.
Even the technique behind the story has signs of a director wanting to make a difference. The film starts off with documentary techniques in which Copley is interviewed by a cameraman and gives a friendly response. Most of the story is initially unveiled in this model to give the audience an understanding of this universe. However, what makes it particularly interesting is when it shifts. Suddenly, it isn't about our perception, but reality's perception. Copley is forced to deal with the conflicts head on as he becomes literally a different person. The camera is indicative of when we should feel specific emotion and makes for one solid experimental technique.
Of course, it is simply hard to make high concept sci-fi films and expect them to pay off. As it stands, Chappie is a film that has musicians Die Antwoord as central characters. It even has a very ridiculous character design. There's a lot going on that immediately feels familiar in narrative. However, his quest to make something weird is admirable and likely will give him longevity. However, whether or not he makes anything great again, he does have the fluke that as District 9. It should at least provide confidence that it isn't totally unforeseeable that things will turn around. For now, he'll just keep having to find new ways to weird us out.