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District 9

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This film is full of newcomers, from director Neill Blomkamp to lead actors Sharlto Copley and Vanessa Haywood. It eschews the slick look of Hollywood for a documentary-like feel of oppressed aliens forced to live in slums near Johannesburg, South Africa. It uses a combination of "archived" footage of the aliens arrival on Earth, their forced removal from their crippled ship to squalid shacks and their interactions with the South African population (which has grown increasingly hostile), to news and closed-circuit camera footage of the current action, as well as interviews with individuals after the fact. It should come as no surprise that there are parallels to apartheid as well as any other country's oppression of a minority.

It is not a perfect film. There are several plot holes almost as big as the alien ship, but they weren't enough to detract from my enjoyment. Some might ask me how I can overlook things in this film but not in others (the recent Star Trek for example), and they might have a point. However, I expected more from Paramount, J. J. Abrams and crew (and their enormous budget), but I was disappointed that they gave us an empty exercise in special effects razzle-dazzle and illogical plot and character interactions.

In District 9, Blomkamp was working within a limited budget ($30 million) that was mainly used for CGI. Weta Workshop, which did such an incredible job on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, did an equally great job here blending the effects with the more mundane video look of this film. It is possible that some of the closeups of alien faces used animatronics, but I am sure the full-body shots were CGI, in combination with motion-capture techniques as used on Gollum in LotR. But the FX is just window dressing. I will always prefer a film that has a serious story with realistic characters, and that's where District 9 is better than almost any blockbuster you care to name.

I struggled with what to say without spoiling things, including trying to explain the plot holes, but decided it would be too difficult walking that line, so I'm not going to try. I'll give just an overview of the action, and hopefully you will sense my enthusiasm for the movie and why I'm recommending it. Sharlto Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe, an employee of the powerful firm of Multinational United (MNU), a weapons manufacturer with its own private security force (think Halliburton crossed with Blackwater). He is tasked with supervising the eviction of the alien "Prawns" (nicknamed for their appearance) from the squalor of District 9 to a new complex, dubbed District 10, some two hundred miles north. While later events make his character somewhat more sympathetic, he is as guilty as any of condescension towards the aliens he considers lesser creatures. In one sense, what happens to him can be considered to be karmic fate.

It is unfortunate that we only get a close look at two of the aliens. They seem to have adopted (or been given) human names, similar to the case of many African slaves in the United States. Wikus comes into contact with one who goes by the name of Christopher Johnson, and this particular alien seems to be much more intelligent than average, possibly one of the leaders of the group while most are just drone laborers. Christopher has a child (can't recall if it had a name) who seems to be as intelligent as its parent. They have been attempting to find and repair certain bits of alien technology in an effort to get back to their ship and depart for their home planet.

As I said at the beginning, this is a film by newcomers. Blomkamp had only a few short films on his resumé when he met Peter Jackson, who tapped him to direct a proposed film based on the video game Halo. That deal fell through (and the latest rumor has Steven Spielberg attached), but Jackson was determined to work with him on something, and proposed an expansion of "Alive in Joburg," which is just a six minute film concerning this alien race.

You can watch that on YouTube.

This is also the first feature film for actors Copely and Haywood, who plays Wikus' wife Tania. Very few of the other actors have more than ten credits at IMDb.com, and there was only one of them (William Allen Young) that I recognized. He's American, and has been in a lot of things over the years, from The Jeffersons to the 80s revival of Twilight Zone, and Babylon 5, up to current shows like CSI, NCIS and Saving Grace. The acting is realistic, in keeping with the documentary like story-telling. Johannesburg seems to be as much of a melting pot as anywhere in America, with British and Dutch descendants in the higher social classes, to many different African nationalities represented. In some of the interviews captions are used even when they are speaking English because of the thick accents.

One of the minor things you just have to accept is the fact that the Prawns are speaking their own language (which is subtitled) and the main human characters speak English, but both understand the other. Much easier to accept that over the twenty years the aliens have been on Earth they've learned to understand English but not speak it due to limitations of their vocal cords, and vice versa, rather than them trying to justify a "universal translator" device as so many other films and television shows have done.

In spite of its flaws, District 9 is the one of the best SF films I've seen lately, and I think that's saying a lot since we've had several other serious films in the past few years, from Serenity to Children of Men and The Man From Earth, along with Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, V for Vendetta, and most recently Moon. (All of these have been reviewed here, so if interested click on the Films menu button at the top left of the page for these and other reviews.)

I'm not saying that I would rate District 9 over any of those, but I generally judge a film for its overall appeal, especially how consistent the filmmaker is with his vision. Blomkamp does what any serious filmmaker should do. He made me consider the possibility of this reality, of how humans are likely to react if we ever do encounter extra-terrestrials. It probably won't be pretty, but it will be interesting and exciting, and that is exactly what District 9 is. Most importantly, it attempts to say something about the human condition, our relationship to other creatures, our world, and the universe as a whole. I think he's trying to say we don't measure up, but that is subject to interpretation.

It is also not a totally original and unique film in spite of the fact the execution is different. When I first heard of it I immediately thought of Alien Nation, and after seeing it I can say it made me think of other movies as wide ranging as The Quatermass Xperiment to Black Like Me, and even Serenity (you're just gonna have to see D9 to know what I mean on that one).

I've already seen it twice, and will likely see it at least once more in the theater, and look forward to the DVD. This is one of the few times that I'll be anticipating the extras almost as much as seeing the film again. Special effects don't interest me that much in and of themselves, but I am definitely interested in seeing how they made this seem as realistic as the rest of the movie. Early reports indicate it will be number one at the box office this weekend, already making back more than its production budget. I think we can thank Peter Jackson's name for most of that, but it is hard to tell what kind of legs it will have.

I should warn you it is rated R, and rightly so. Lots of graphic gore and violence, and quite a bit of profanity, along with some nasty people doing very bad things for what they consider to be good reasons. As I said, realistic.

 

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Director
Neill Blomkamp

Screenplay
Neill Blomkamp
Terri Tatchell

Released
August 14, 2009

Cast
Sharlto Copley
Vanessa Haywood
Louis Minnaar
William Allen Young
Nathalie Boltt

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray