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 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 sounds 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.
Moving on, we come to Dorian Gray, the latest Oscar Wilde adaptation from Oliver Parker, who appears to be specialising in this rather niche area. This famous tale of a corrupted immortal has of course been brought to the screen many times before, and Parker's version is more faithful to the novel than many (although given that the last two I saw featured Gray as an indestructible supervillain in league with Professor Moriarty, and a deranged polymath space-hermit with nefarious plans for Blake's Seven, that isn't saying much). Come to think of it, Parker's film features one character getting hand relief and someone else being hit by a tube train, neither of which happened in the version of the book that I read, so maybe I'm talking out of the back of my neck on this one (as usual).
Well anyway. This is the story of wealthy young Victorian gentleman Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), an angel-faced young innocent who falls into the orbit of up-and-coming painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin, looking rather like Antonio Banderas here) and studiedly amoral hedonist Henry Wotton (Colin Firth cast against type). Dorian's youth and beauty sway everyone he comes across, but for reasons the film never quite makes fully clear he becomes strangely linked to a portrait of him painted by Basil. In a reversal of what normally happens, as time passes Dorian remains untouched by the passage of time and the external ravages of his excessive lifestyle, while his image in the picture withers and decays...
This isn't actually an out-and-out bad film, but I can see it really struggling to find an audience. The period settings (the 1890s and 1910s) are well-mounted, but the tone and subject-matter aren't really your standard costume drama fare. On the other hand, the horror and evil and sin will seem very tame indeed to anyone raised on a diet of modern movies. Dorian's lifestyle just doesn't seem very transgressive by modern standards, there's virtually no blood or gore, and the orgy scenes are just a bit too genteel given things like Donkey Punch have been doing the rounds for years. Parker's direction is occasionally imaginative but in many ways this film could have been made by Hammer 40 years ago with hardly any changes required. (Well... as may in fact be obligatory in any movie from a Wilde story these days, it doesn't shy away from the subtext of a story of older, experienced men wanting to win over and corrupt a beautiful young boy. But it does seem a bit of an afterthought and most of the rumpo is thoroughly heterosexual in nature, and in that uniquely kinky late Victorian vein, to boot.)
Having said that, the movie intelligently projects the second half of the story into a future Wilde himself never lived to see (shame they couldn't have thought up a way to do the first half as period and the second as present day without rewriting the story even more than they do here, as it would've given the film a distinct identity of its own) and the make-up and visual effects are very good. There are plenty of well-known faces in the cast, many of them in surprisingly small parts (I get the impression most of Douglas Henshall's scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, or more likely these days in the recycle bin of the editing PC's desktop; might as well have stayed on Primeval till the end, Douggie), as well as a few promising newcomers like Rebecca Hall and Rachel Hurd-Wood. Colin Firth is okay when rattling out epigrams like a witty Gatling gun but on the whole he seems ill-at-ease in a part rather at odds with his normal persona.
The real problem in the acting department is that Ben Barnes doesn't really have the chops to depict Dorian's gradual slide into corruption and degeneracy. At the start of the story he's very Fotherington-Thomas-ish and comes across not so much as naive as just a bit dim-witted. Admittedly he improves as the film goes on but I would venture to suggest that no-one, except possibly extremely hormonal teenage girls with a thing about bad boys with good hair, will care overly much about what happens to him or his picture. Rather ironically for a film about a character who decides to seize life and live it to the utmost with terrible results, Dorian Gray is much too timid in nearly every part of its storytelling. And while the results aren't exactly terrible, they're not particularly memorable or praiseworthy either.