District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s action thriller District 9 is easily the most original and purely creative work of cinematic science fiction in a decade. Though it may lack the iconic hooks that will earn it classic status like The Matrix, Robocop, Terminator or Alien, it’s the sci-fi movie others will have to measure themselves against, just as those films were in their day. At a time when massive budgets are thrown at sequels, remakes, adaptations and rip-offs, this is an invigorating and entertaining reminder of what a little imagination can do. What is sci-fi/fantasy after all without imagination or invention?

District 9 begins with a subtle rejiggering of the usual alien invasion story and this time the human beings are the bad guys. It’s not exactly a new idea, but this is a long way from Starman or E.T. When a disabled alien spacecraft the size of a small city appears over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa, hundreds of thousands of weakened and malnourished aliens with segmented bug-like bodies – they’re derogatorily referred to as “prawns” – are rounded up and segregated in an enormous walled off camp known as District 9. While the private company in charge of the internment works to try and make the alien weapons and ships work – they’re somehow DNA encoded so only the aliens can use them – years pass and District 9 becomes a violent slum. When a bumbling bureaucrat put in charge of a mission to relocate the aliens farther from the city stumbles upon an alien escape plan, he’s infected by some kind of mysterious alien liquid that begins turning his own DNA into alien DNA. As a possible bridge between alien and human and a gateway to understanding and using the alien technology, suddenly he is a very wanted man.

Relative newcomer Sharlto Copley (producer and star of Alive in Joburg, the short film that provided the basis for District 9) is terrific as the enthusiastic but ineffectual dope Wikus van der Merwe. He entertainingly, energetically and convincingly pulls off the transition from joke to jerk to hero and he’s the anchor that ties the various story threads together. He’s an unlikable clod at the start, but he slowly becomes the guy you root for – no small feat for someone who isn’t a recognizable movie star.

A lack of movie stars would seem to be a liability for a sci-fi film looking for crossover success, but the real star here is the special effects work from producer Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. The marvelous thing about the creatures is that you mostly don’t notice them as effects. Their movements are at times jerky and unnatural, but they otherwise have a tactile quality, a solidity and a seamless blending with backgrounds and human actors that is all to often lacking in even the highest end CGI. They feel “real” in the way James Cameron is boasting about his effects for the upcoming Avatar, but with no 3-D photography and none of the advanced hype. It remains to be seen how impressive Cameron’s film turns out to be, but the bar has already been raised by a film with a tiny fraction of Avatar‘s enormous budget.

One problem that keeps District 9 from perfection is that the setup takes forever to execute and it’s filmed in that faux documentary style that’s already becoming a boring cliché. The story doesn’t really start to click until 40 minutes in and the final action payoff doesn’t quite justify the long opening. This is problematic, but it’s not fatal. Eventually the story does kick in and it somewhat makes up in thematic gravity and emotional payoff what it doesn’t quite pull off in action gusto.

The film also dips its toes into squirmy gross-out territory that will be off-putting to some, but won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with producer Jackson’s early directorial work. It’s difficult to say how much he shaped District 9 and how much was Blomkamp, but the almost Raimiesque cartoon zeal with which the film tackles some of the more disgusting elements on display has Jackson’s fingerprints all over it. This sort of thing is not for all tastes, but it adds a few tension-breaking yet uncomfortable chuckles for everyone else.

Clichéd documentary style aside, the highlight of District 9 is its sheer originality. How refreshing to watch a work of sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t a sequel a remake or an adaptation. What a thrill to watch a story that inhabits its own believable and unique world where you can’t anticipate exactly what’s going to happen next because you’ve never really seen anything quite like it. It’s not a revolutionary shift from what has come before, but it confidently carves out its own territory. As audiences are spoon-fed more and more of the same by studios that are too afraid to take chances on properties that don’t have built in name recognition, District 9 returns us to the joy of the unknown and the unexpected. In the process it clears the table of every one of the more expensive action pictures that have been trotted out this desultory summer season and it stakes its claim as the genre picture to beat this year.

District 9. USA 2009. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cinematography by Trent Opaloch. Music score composed by Clinton Shorter. Edited by Julian Clarke. Starring Sharlto Copley, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Marian Hooman, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi, Eugene Khumanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, William Allen Young, Nathalie Boltt and Sylvaine Strike. 1 hour 52 minutes. MPAA rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. 4 stars (out of 5)

10 Responses to “Review: District 9 (2009) ****”

  1. I’m really glad you liked this too, Craig. I agree that the faux doco style is a well worn device and as the film progressed I found its injection more and more irritating for adding nothing. But that was a minor quibble in the face of its many strengths. Like you I was impressed with the ability to create a unique and believable world and also with the CGI quality.

    The politics is well handled too. The messages are clearly delivered without being didactic.

  2. It’s important to note that about half-way through the doc shtick was pretty much dropped completely. Not a coincidence that that’s also about the time the movie really started to kick into gear.

    I also liked the light handling of the politics and message.

    Interestingly, I got more of a parallel to Guantanamo than to Apartheid in South Africa. ***SPOILERS*** the way the film ends with the aliens leaving and we wonder if they’re going to come back pissed off and ready for revenge.

    As much as I like it, I wonder if D9 will have the repeat value of some of the classics I mentioned in the review. Sometimes when I walk out of a movie I love, I’m ready to watch it all over again, but so far that’s not the case here.

  3. For now I’m happy to think of it as a very good film. Like you I’m unsure how much I’ll want to revisit it.

  4. I agree that the parallels weren’t just with apartheid SA. It spoke more generally to the human capacity to mistreat groups of outsiders or the disempowered that has been shamefully evidenced in a variety of real world contexts.

  5. I’m really looking forward to seeing this! Opens here at the end of the month.

  6. Hello Mr. Plowman!

    This is definitely a film I will see as soon as possible. Your excitement is palpable in the prose here.

  7. Wow, Nick, you have crossed my mind more than once recently in thinking about this movie, and I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on it.

    Craig, a great review that is, as always, well reasoned. But funny how I take the opposite stance as you on a couple of the things (for example, i would have preferred all documentary as to no documentary), and some of the flaws I saw overshadowed some of the highlights you saw.

    Really, my biggest issue with it was that I wanted it to go a lot deeper into the social issues/apartheid symbolism. It’s fair to use one’s imagination and I love how it was all rendered on screen, but I left thinking “What was the point of setting it in SA with apartheid as a fading backdrop?” Just didn’t seem like that had anything to do with the resolution of the story.

    But I’ll see the sequel.

  8. Hi guys – I live in Johannesburg – so here’s my input:

    It’s set in South Africa for a number of reasons –
    1) To keep costs down.
    2) Neill grew up in Joburg and new what he wanted to do. The set is actually a real shanty town recently removed of real inhabitants who had supposedly been moved to government sponsored houses. The MNU vehicles were actual UN aid vehicles which were on their way to Sudan. The whole cast and most of the crew are South African.
    3) Neill reasoned that Aliens might not necessarily always land in the US or Europe… It’s refreshing. In addition, the very Afrikaans and African Language accents add to the Alen nature of the movie…
    4) The analogy is partly with apartheid – but also more recently aligns with the 2008 Xenophobic violence perpetrated on illegal poor foreigners in South Africa by equally poor locals (South Africans attacked Nigerians, Somalians, Zimabaweans etc) – but the comparison also extends to how humans generally treat ‘others’ so badly – we’re talking: Concentration Camps (incidentally invented by the British in South Africa during the Boer War 1899 to 1903), to Apartheid, Guantanemo, Iraq etc etc It’s an international question of morality and the frailty of the human condition.
    5) the weather in Johannesburg is similar to Phoenix (Arizona I think) : During winter it is very cold, very dry – therefore you get this alien bright light with lots of dust and no greenery – just works for the picture! In summer its green and lush – just wouldn’t work the same way.

    Even the prawns are named after the “Parktown Prawn” an ugly very large cricket type insect native to Johannesburg!

    I hope this helps?

    Incidentally – it only opens here in SA next Fri :-(

  9. Fascinating insights, Greg. I hadn’t heard most of that anywhere.

  10. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to give us a local perspective, Greg. I read somewhere in passing that the movie was also inspired by an actual incident where a slum full of people were really rounded up and relocated…I think it was in Joburg. Do you know if that’s true?

    Also, I’ve heard some complaints about the film itself being racist. It seems to me like that’s totally missing the point of the film. It’s true, one set of bad guys in the film are Nigerians, but there’s also a bigger set who are white. Thoughts?

    Daniel, it is pretty funny we’re totally on opposite ends of this film even though we both like it to varying degrees. That’s the wonder of movies I suppose.

    Nick, sorry I didn’t see your comment until like a week later. Great to have you pop in again. I hope all is well.

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