The film's set-up, handily explained in one poster

This debut feature from British effects-wizard Gareth Edwards has won praise from critics having been made on such a small budget whilst tackling a genre one would usually associate with much larger scale productions. The story goes that the director and his two main actors (a real-life couple) travelled across Mexico with minimal equipment filming predominantly improvised scenes, before Edwards conjured and added all the CGI back in his bedroom in London. 

The result is a success, visually: the film makes inventive use of camera angles and darkness to give the audience a convincing sense of the monsters even though (or perhaps because) they’re rarely clearly seen. This is no better illustrated than in the opening sequence, in which a manic alien attack seen through a soldier’s shuddering night-vision camera is interspersed with the silent, crisp-white-font-on-black-screen credits. It’s bloody brilliant.

What follows looks set to echo the plot of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 – a film also set a number of years after aliens have ‘landed’ on earth and everyone has got over the surprise. But Edwards isn’t really interested in thinking about this scenario as Blomkamp did so successfully, instead concentrating solely on the relationship between his two leads, who must travel together accross the ‘infected zone’ to get back to America.

Indeed, when the aliens aren’t around, much of it has the feel of an indie romance: lots of gentle, contemplative music, the sun seemingly always setting or rising, and many a soft-focus close-up of photogenic star Whitney Able. It’s an choice of  subject that’s not uninteresting in itself – but by the end of the film, nothing much has happened and in fact you’re left wanting more detail about everything in the world depicted other than these two characters’ dull relationship.

A good bit from Babel

Edwards also treads a lot of what feels like well-worn ground. People standing around in a jungle, hearing whale song and asking ‘What’s that?’ felt like Jurassic Park – and in any case was plain silly, given they were in the middle of the monster inhabited area. Another scene later on, which sees the male protagonist break down whilst on the phone to his young son, is ripped straight from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (Bradd Pitt did a much better job). And as for the cheesy intertwiney alien ‘mating’ at the end – hasn’t that been done one too many times already by Avatar?

Sadly, for all its fiscal prudence and nifty effects, in the end I found this film’s narrative about as unimaginative and derivative as the giant squid-like aliens of its title. I was ready to be entertained, too – especially after those knockout first five minutes. Get District 9 out on DVD instead.

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