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The Machine in My Shadow

In my opinion the film we are about to watch represents the current high water mark in the steady flood of films that attempt to shine a light on our relationship with the machine. No other cinematic  extravaganza since “The Matrix (1999),” that I’ve watched anyway, has transferred more indelible impressions into my brain. This movie had passed through wide release and gone to home video before I bothered to watch it. Let’s just say, I hope there are more Sci-Fi epics this good just waiting to be discovered.

In “District 9”, (2009) by Neill Blomkamp, a gigantic alien refugee barge is marooned in the sky above Johannesburg. Its occupants erect slums in its shadow. Setting the story on earth in the present day, rather than some zone of the future, makes the action unfold with foreboding immediacy and uncanny familiarity. I’ve watched it three times and walked away with my nervous system flushed and brain left twitching with after image, clear into the next day. It is not always an easy ride, but “District 9” sails along with novelty and surprise and while there is no visual in the film so impressive as that alien gallion in the sky, it is drama of a human scale on which the story relies.

District 9’s dilemma does not focus on an apocalypse, like so many science fiction films. One could say it is about “race,” based on where it takes place. Fear, prejudice, savagery and rebellion and enlightenment all flash across the protagonist’s face. On the flip side, we discover some capacity for compassion, as well, residing underneath the Prawn’s rigidly engineered carapace. In contrast to the love story told to us in “Blade Runner,” the climax in “District 9’s comes when aliens and humans cooperate to save, not the human race, but the aliens.

At the heart of this story, refugees just want to go home. Anyone can relate to that? Right? Not one person in the audience does at first. Believe me, these are very strange creature/machines, communicating with creepy, insect-like hisses and clickings. These “Prawn,” as they are known, walk on hind legs, like us, but are disgusting to look at and barbaric and kinky besides. Come be a spectator at white South African Alien Relocation Chief Wikus Van de Merwe’s life while it turns into a sheer nightmare. His one hope of deliverance comes by embracing his enemy, from the inside out.

There’s a fair amount of shocking, visceral sensation in “District 9” but, as with the best of this genre, the worst is left to imagination. It also classifies as a horror flick, like Ridley Scott’s second sci-fi masterwork, “Alien,”

“District 9” earns high marks for the way its production design and editorial style elevate the action. Another recent film with a fascination for “reality television” is Ralph Fiennes’ fine first feature “Coriolanus” (2010) which has the added distinction of being a daring Shakespeare adaptation.

Both movies seem to not only comment on our appetite for news but on ways the news machine can be used to either inflame or sooth. In “District 9” we are hustled into the center of the action with a hypnotic mix of television newscasts, surveillance clips from the relocation front, and frequent, documentary sidebar hindsight, slipped in amid the grittier footage, an official story is carefully being floated in, from cool-headed spokespersons, located in offices or studios a safe distance away. Truth here is nothing but an amalgam of facts compiled from a compendium of DV tracks, examining some earthshaking acts, beneath which we are all still reeling, wrestling with and hoping not to let ever happen again.

Besides the immediacy with which the storytellers are able to invest this tale, “District 9” also manages to make us emotionally relate to two of the strangest strangers in motion pictures. Ironically, the Prawn named Christian and his bright little curious offspring give Wikus a dose of much needed humility. Through those three, hopefully we relate to all displaced folk everywhere and their quest for home and family.

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