Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including comicwonder.com. He recently filmed an episode of the popular AMC series "Mad Men."
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf weighs in on a new release, "District 9," which hit theaters Friday.
I think this film is probably brilliant. I don't know how successful it will be at this point in the summer, but the script is wonderfully layered, the concept both frightening and funny, with all kinds of political and sociological connections. The execution is great.
The style is reminiscent of "Children of Men" and Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later." It is that hand-held, documentary-style camera that you see a lot these days. In "District 9," the film takes on the form of a documentary, complete with interviews of government officials, military personnel pushing the camera down and away from things that they do not want to be seen, even "The Office" technique of scenes playing out with characters glancing at the camera in that shared knowledge that all is being watched by the ever-present camera.
It may be the one big flaw in the film -- the change from the documentary style of story telling to a straightforward, and more typical, movie style of story telling and then back again. It is like the personal story, the romantic version, wrenches the plot away from the more distant, clinical examination of the story. But, it works.
The entire film takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is directed by a South African director named Neill Blomkamp based on a short film of his called "Alive In Joburg." It has no known stars in it, unless South African audiences know them. Peter Jackson, who directed the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong," produced it.
That alone may be enough recognition to market the film to the broad audience that it deserves.
The story is universal and familiar on its surface. An alien space ship has arrived at Earth for no known reason, and come to a complete halt above the city of Johannesburg. About 100,000 malnourished aliens were on board. They were put into a camp on the outskirts of the city and for 20 years they have lived there, and bred there, and festered there, in the same segregated, isolated way that impoverished people did and do in cities all over the planet. At the time of the incident there are almost 1.5 million of the aliens and they have become a problem and they need to be moved. They are a problem because they are unsightly, they are poor and messy, and they seem to be getting a little "uppity." The metaphor is obvious and very potent.
A low-level, officious civil servant is put in charge of the project of moving the aliens. He gets the job primarily because he is married to the boss's daughter. He is fairly effective at his job, but there is more organization and intelligence among the aliens than has been supposed by the government authorities. The government meets with the normal amount of resistance that a poor and angry people who have been pushed around and ignored for decades might show. But, the government also must deal with a technology and a desire that lay hidden beneath the seeming slave mentality of the aliens.
All great science fiction works on a metaphoric level if it works at all and "District 9" is completely within that idiom. At a point about midway through the 1 hour, 47 minutes, the documentary gives way to a movie about the man who appeared to be a patsy but turns out to be a hero.
There are one or two sentimental, pure Peter Jackson moments at the end. They don't exactly work but they are forgivable. Like he does at the end of "King Kong" he seems to be having so much fun that he doesn't know when to let it go and end it. The special effects are spectacular in their lack of spectacle. They are so real that you are completely drawn in to the world of the aliens and the humans and how they fail to live together. The aliens themselves are called "prawns," because they look like bipedal, two armed shrimp. It is a dismissive name; a name meant to diminish.
The movie is a beautifully put together, simple story of "the other" and how we have failed continually as a species to learn how to live with them and how they will always find a way.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.