District 9: Grit, Gore and Glorious Science Fiction

Wikus (Sharlto Copley) on the run from the MNU (WingNut Films).

Wikus (Sharlto Copley) on the run from the MNU (WingNut Films).

Astroengine District 9 Review.

I managed to watch District 9 last night, and it was awesome. I may as well tell you my conclusion up-front, just in case you don’t want to read on, because I’m not going to be able to avoid mentioning some spoilers. So, if you haven’t already done so, get down the theatre now to watch a unique and enthralling sci-fi docu-action-thriller (but beware, there’s lots of exploding heads and alien gore, so go easy on the popcorn and fizzy drinks).

Generally, it looks like District 9 has received good reviews and a robust nod from the science fiction community, and now I’m going to weigh in with a review from Astroengine.com.

First and foremost, I think D9 surpassed pretty much all of my expectations, which is rare for Hollywood produce these days. It was little surprise then, that this movie wasn’t of the Hollywood brand, it came from the genius mind of the South Africa-born director Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson‘s production company Wingnut Films. The whole thing was shot in the gritty South African city of Johannesburg.

Setting the scene

The face of a "prawn." Kinda cute in a squiddy way.

The face of a prawn. Kinda cute in a squiddy way.

An alien spaceship breaks down on Earth and comes to a stop over Johannesburg. After several weeks of not seeing any sign of life, the authorities decide to cut their way into the ship. They find hundreds of thousands of malnourished insect-like, human-sized aliens inside. Humans do the right thing by setting up a makeshift shelter in Johannesburg, called District 9 (it is of no coincidence that there’s a similarity with the real events in District Six during the 1966 apartheid government rule). So far, so good.

After a couple of decades of living in the D9 shanty town, the local human populous is getting fed up with their alien neighbours (they derogatively call “prawns”). As it turns out, these aliens don’t appear to be very smart and they are certainly not organized. They have no leader and they are thought to be the “workers” of their alien race. They are far from being the sophisticated invasion party one would expect a technologically advanced race to be like.

Alien underdogs

This is the coolest thing about this movie; the aliens are cast as the unfortunate underdogs that are being forced to stay on Earth by their human captors. Why? Technology, of course.

A military organization called Multinational United (MNU) is put in charge of moving the million-plus alien beings to a new concentration camp housing facility 200 miles away. The whole operation is led by a bumbling MNU field operative called Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley). Wikus is your standard trying-way-too-hard-to-please-and-failing guy with a loving wife (who can somehow see past his many social flaws) and tough father-in-law (who is the head of MNU and responsible for giving Wikus this “big break”). Wikus is almost like a South African hybrid of Steve Carrel, Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg.

Serving alien evictions. Not as easy as it sounds (it sounded easy?!)

Serving alien evictions. Not as easy as it sounds (it sounded easy?!)

There are some fantastic moments when an overly confident Wikus knocks on doors serving eviction notices to the aliens. It is an awkward, yet captivating scenario. The MNU, an organization that obviously has absolute power over the situation, has decided to make the eviction of the aliens seem “legal” by getting them to sign (or “scrawl”) their signature on a small piece of paper. Naturally, the aliens aren’t too happy about all this and Wikus is met with a variety of responses (one where the alien slaps the paper out of his hand and storms off — Wikus triumphantly points out that a tentacle hit the paper, it is therefore signed). Another funny legality is that the aliens have been given human names (such as “Christopher Johnson”) to make their very existence bona fide.

In the first third of the film there are several reminders that the MNU isn’t a tolerant organization. If the armed units are faced with any resistance, they kill on-site. However, they are faced with an impoverished, desparate alien populous that will do anything for a tin of cat food. They are more concerned about chewing on car tires than being shot at. The cat food actually becomes a commodity in District 9, a currency the local Nigerian gangs use to trade for weapons. There is also a hilarious reference to “inter-species prostitution.”

Human-prawn hybrid?

The movie starts off in hand-held documentary style (not in an annoying Blair Witch Project way), following Wikus on his alien eviction adventures, but the atmosphere of the story changes after he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a black fluid in an unidentified cylinder. There is then an altercation with one of “Christopher Johnson’s” friends who tries to distract attention away from the shack that contained Wikus was sprayed in.

Cue alien death, execution style, by the bald-headed bad-ass special unit military guy.

A dodgy stomach and a broken arm later, Wikus is stuck in a situation he can’t get out of. You remember that spray? It turns out that it’s not only a special, highly refined spaceship fuel, it’s also a way to really mess up your day if you breathe it in. Wikus has started to change into an alien.

This is probably one of the weaker parts of the story. How a nasal spray is going to tinker with your genetics in such a way that will turn you into a human-alien hybrid, I don’t know, but District 9 didn’t start with a claim that it was going to be totally scientifically accurate. Somehow Wikus’ left hand also turns into a clawed alien appendage. I’ll turn a blind eye to the fudged human-alien biology lesson.

Guards outside the grim District 9

Guards outside the grim District 9

So we’re locked in a race against time as MNU agents track down and capture Wikus as Wikus becomes more and more prawn-like. From being a flawed MNU officer, he has now become the most valuable human on the planet; he is the only one capable of operating the alien technology (their weapons only react to alien biology).

Prawn purée

During the period when Wikus has been captured and is being experimented on, the MNU shows itself for what it really is; a weapon research facility with little regard for human life, let alone alien life. In one particularly tough scene, Wikus has to fire an assortment of alien weaponry at animal carcasses against his will…

[If you told me before watching District 9 that I would feel shocked by the death of a CGI’d alien being, I’d assume I would have been drinking heavily beforehand. But no, I hadn’t had a beer (although the Pepsi was quite syrupy).]

…At this point, a live alien is dragged out with an X painted on its torso. When stood, shivering at the end of the shooting range, Wikus is ordered to shoot the alien. He refuses, crying. You see that Wikus does have a certain degree of respect for the aliens and he is certainly adverse to killing them. Unfortunately, tied in place, and alien weapon pushed in this hand, he’s forced to fire the gun at the frightened “prawn,” who explodes in a bloody mess.

It’s pretty grizzly and also a little upsetting. I think this is the moment in the movie that you know you are dealing with a different kind of sci-fi storyline and Blomkamp does an amazing job to shock, but not to go over the top.

Agony and terror

Christopher Johnson looks out of the prison van after being captured.

Christopher Johnson looks out of the prison van after being captured.

Also, you realize Sharlto Copley’s acting ability is nothing short of outstanding. Before the weapon testing scene, there’s a fair amount of humour angled at his character, afterwards you can feel his agony and terror.

Needless to say, Wikus escapes and runs to the only place he can find refuge: District 9. Fortunately, we are allowed a little time to recuperate after the MNU experiments as Wikus turns into a convict running through his own city.

After a period of making friends with the smart “Christopher Johnson” and little (and quite cute) pint-sized alien son, Wikus and “Christopher” work out they need each other to find a solution to the problems they are facing. “Christopher” needs to retrieve the mysterious cylinder from the MNU HQ to make the command ship (hidden under District 9) function, and Wikus needs alien technology from the mothership hovering overhead to stop him from going 100% prawn.

And so begins an orgy of human-popping. In the best human-alien buddy pairing since Han Solo and Chewbacca, Wikus and “Christopher” assault the MNU HQ with the best alien guns Wikus could steal from those Nigerian “inter-species prostitution” gangs (with a fetish for drinking alien blood and collecting alien junk they can’t use). Of course, now that Wikus can operate these guns, he can have some fun.

A clip from District 9: Wikus uses an alien weapon for the first time (language NSFW):

Many reviews of District 9 are critical of the amount of action in the rest of the film, but I thought it was pretty cool. Science-lite, but it sure was a tour de force of movie action imagination. My particular favourite was Wikus’ energy-lightning-bolt gun that had no difficulty in snuffing out MNU personnel in a cloud of blood vapour.

A few gun battles later, and we return to District 9, plus fuel cylinder. Quite a lot happens, but to cut a long story short… there were a lot of explosions. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was fairly routine, with a couple of minor plot twists. When I say routine, I don’t mean it was boring, the movie simply went its course without too many surprises. Well, there might have been one or two

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From Messier 80 to Messier 45 in 13.111 Seconds

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=3833014&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

PussyMagnet 6009 from Mato Atom on Vimeo.

On my travels across the space blogosphere, I came across a rather nifty video called “Docking” posted on the Cosmic Variance blog. The impressive CGI was done by a guy called Mato Atom on the video site Vimeo, and it’s certainly not subtle (a reminder that sex in space will, quite literally, be a docking procedure).

Having a look at Mato Atom’s other videos, I found another creation that took my breath away. A computer generated flying saucer called the PussyMagnet 6009, animated to Bach’s Air (on a G-string). Once again, the title of the video suggests you might want to use this hi-tech flying saucer for something more than warping space-time, but this mock-advertisement is certainly in the style of an expensive BMW, Audi or Mercedes ad.

So, come the year 6009, you might see an ad like this on your TV screen (or whatever ‘screen’ we might use in 4000 years time), where the looks of space vehicles are just as important as their function. Some things don’t change

“Because fossil fuels are so 2009.”

Flying Laser Ready to Begin Airborne Weapon Tests

The 747 plus ABL (USAF)

747 airliner? Check. Huge laser? Check. Huge-flying-missile-melting-laser? Nearly.

Actually, I’d want to fly the aircraft remotely, unmanned, and fire the oversized laser pointer at the 747 from a distance. Just to see how long it would take to melt. But that’s just me.

Boeing on the other hand, has succeeded in building a flying laser. Toward the end of 2008, the Airborne Laser (ABL) had been installed inside its Boeing 747 host and it was undergoing static tests. Sure enough, the megawatt laser had proven its worth and fired at a target, twice, in one-second bursts. Details are sketchy as to the damage the ABL caused, but Boeing and other US military contractors heralded the test as a success (if you ask me, the target probably looked like this afterwards).
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“Moon” Movie Trailer Now Online

Why didn’t I know about this movie?

samfront

I have no clue how I didn’t notice this film was in the works, but it would appear I’m not quite as well plugged into the sci-fi pulse as I used to be. Announced last year, “Moon” is set on the lunar surface where a lone contractor is manning the Helium-3 mining operation. Acted by Sam Rockwell, the setting looks like a visual treat, bound to get any science fiction enthusiast’s taste buds excited. However, yesterday the trailer was released ahead of its June 12th release… and it looks good
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Space Exploration Isn’t an Economic Stimulus. It’s a Humanity Stimulus

A scene from X3: Terran Conflict (©Egosoft)

A scene from X3: Terran Conflict (©Egosoft)

When I said this on Twitter today, it struck up a lot of support. It actually came out as a throwaway comment in Wednesday’s Astroengine Live when I was having a rant about the misconception that space exploration is a luxury and not a necessity. If I was debating this now, I’d probably be somewhere between “necessity” and “luxury”. On the one hand it would be nice to have a very wealthy space agency, carrying out unimaginable science throughout the Solar System, colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids and setting up an interplanetary transportation system. On the other hand, none of these things will be possible unless there is huge (global) public support and political will…
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Reality, Virtual

Left: The 5-sense virtual reality system. Right: A scene from the NASA MMORPG (Mark Richards/NASA)

Left: The 5-sense virtual reality system. Right: A scene from the NASA MMORPG (Mark Richards/NASA)

Computer technology is reaching new levels of sophistication, limited only by our imagination (and that pesky Moore’s Law). As we develop faster and more powerful processors, an exponential increase in the number of calculations can be done per second, providing advanced software with the capability to deliver complex applications to the user. In fact, some computer operations are becoming hard to distinguish from basic human interactions (neural networks hold particular promise).

Naturally, this continuing advance in technology has stimulated the Internet, allowing users worldwide to interact at great speed, where virtual worlds have been created, and people can project themselves as an avatar (a virtual ambassador for their real-world personalities). These virtual worlds have become so immense that millions of users can interact, and the boundary of the universe is only limited by how many networked computers you have running the show. These virtual universes are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and NASA hopes to release their universe (Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond) some time next year.

User interfaces are advancing too. Gone are the days of simple gaming feedback features (such as a rumbling joypad when your 3D animated cartoon character suffers a blow on your 2D TV screen), virtual reality is starting to live up to its name, where the virtual world is overlapping with our real world. Now a 5-sense virtual reality system is undergoing tests, and its implications for NASA’s MMORPG and future space exploration could be huge…

When does virtual reality become… reality?
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Scientists Create Synthetic Life… Now What?

You talk about synthetic life like it's a bad thing - Tricia Helfer in BSG

You talk about synthetic life like it's a bad thing - Tricia Helfer in BSG

Say if you’re in space, searching for life, what do you look for? That’s simple. You look for something that resembles life on Earth; whether that be single-celled amoeba or a Star Trek-style humanoid with a lumpy head and webbed feet.

That’s life we know and understand (with some sci-fi comedy thrown in). What if there are some other unimaginable creatures that may not fit into our understanding of How Things Work™? This is a very real problem NASA has been faced with ever since the agency started sending probes to Mars and spacecraft beyond the Solar System itself. Deep space missions (like the Voyager and Pioneer probes) have intelligent life forms in mind (i.e. ones that can read, hear and interpret the Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man; so it would be nice if ET also has an appreciation for fine art), but our intrepid Mars rovers and landers that have been pestering the Red Planet since the 1960s are looking for the basic building blocks of life, plus evidence of past or present life. So far, there’s been a lot of rocks turned over, yet no sign of extraterrestrial life.

Therefore, scientists at a very early stage defined “life” as a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution so we can focus on finding life we know and understand. To boost this understanding a little further, wouldn’t it be great if we could create our own evolving soup of chemicals?

Now, it seems, this has become a reality. Scientists in a Florida lab have created a beaker filled with synthetic life
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