Viking Night: District B13
By Bruce Hall
July 6, 2010
There are many reasons that certain films achieve what we call "cult" status, but one of them is that they tend to deliver their message in subversive or controversial ways that don't appeal to everyone. While it's true that most people do not like to work for their entertainment, is it possible that even the most unusual films can have something to offer everyone? When I was in college, a group of friends and I would meet regularly to ponder this very question. Beginning with Erik the Viking, we gathered once a week to watch and discuss a different cult classic, but we decided to keep the Viking theme. Now, I'll be working without a turkey leg or a goblet of mead, but with each installment of Viking Night I still seek to examine the same question: Can a film with such limited appeal still speak to us all?
Previously on Viking Night, I decided to take a look at a classic film that at first glance seems a bit too widely loved to merit inclusion in this space. But, as I mentioned, some films are much broader in scope than they appear on the surface, and over time the original intent becomes obscured and even forgotten. I stand by my interpretation of that film but I’ll admit that I reached intentionally, in the interest of challenging myself. Not so with this week’s contestant. I’m leaning pretty far to the other side of the spectrum this time, toward a considerably less well known title. If you saw Casino Royale you’ll remember Bond’s chase through the construction site as he hunted down a suspect who seemed as nimble as a cat made out of rubber bands. It was most people’s first exposure to the art of parkour, but it’s hardly the first time it’s been featured on screen. If you enjoyed Agent 007’s run up the crane, I’d like to recommend to you a film built almost entirely around people doing things you thought only cats could do – provided you can accept the complete absence of Daniel Craig. And it’s a film that springs from the mind of a man who specializes in turning terrible ideas into surprisingly entertaining stuff. But unless you’re a bit of a movie buff, a fan of its creators, or you consider jumping off of tall buildings a form of exercise, you’ve probably never even heard of District B13.
The product of writer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel, District B13 is set in a dystopian near-future Paris, France. It is clear from the start that this film has something to say about the degeneration of society and the struggle to reclaim the relevance of compassion in an environment where being human doesn’t seem to mean much any more. That’s all well and good but I find it funny that the first thing that stood out to me about this movie was the fact that it takes place in 2010 – which couldn’t have seemed all that far off back in 2004 when the it was released. It’s a minor quibble but it seems to me that if you’re going to paint a picture of contemporary society gone mad, you might want to place it far enough in the future so that it seems more prescient than preposterous. I hope I’m wrong, but barring war or natural disaster it’s a little hard to envision civilization collapsing so thoroughly that quickly.
But the Besson/Morel blueprint is more a model of style than substance, despite their occasional attempts at intellectual garnishment. District B13 does betray a modest pretension toward social commentary, but please don’t make the mistake of expecting to come away enlightened. In fact, the self consciously vogue opening titles, paired with an amateurish hip-hop soundtrack, might initially leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed. But they set the tone for what quickly turns into a surprisingly enjoyable, if slightly derivative adventure.