"There's a lot of secrets in District 9..."
District 9, the searing debut feature of South African director Neill Blomkamp, is a summer flick of a rare breed: it's a science fiction movie with depth and provocative ideas that also leaves space for violence and action. With heavyweight New Zealand moviemaker Peter Jackson serving as producer, this excellent low-budget sci-fi actioner (which stars no well-known actors) has drawn a lot of attention in the lead-up to its release. And, for those concerned, it surpasses its hype with aplomb. Lensed with a staggering degree of immediacy, District 9 grasps an unoriginal premise and adds innovation, producing the most compelling and cerebral science fiction movie to hit cinemas for years. It's definitive proof that a successful summer extravaganza doesn't need to be brain-dead or big-budget. (This is particularly potent in the late months of 2009; a year which bore the release of the catastrophic $200 million blockbuster Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.)
Blomkamp begins his film in the style of a documentary; presenting a montage comprised of news reports, interviews and raw footage. An audience can accept the premise more easily because these creatures are introduced in the type of scenes we see on the daily news. It's soon revealed that during the 1980s an enormous disabled spaceship cast its shadow over Johannesburg, South Africa (as opposed to a more glamorous port of call). Yet this ship that hovers above Earth turns out to be a rotting cocoon inhabited by creatures on the verge of death. The authorities remove these aliens from their ship, dump them in a fenced shantytown, and force them to live in slum-like conditions. Here they're derogatorily referred to as "prawns" (on account of their crustacean-like appearance).
The main story thread transpires during 2010 when the human populace of Johannesburg demand that the prawns be moved somewhere else. Enter Multi-National United (MNU); the company in charge of the relocation program. The protagonist of the film is an MNU bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley) who's exposed to alien biotechnology.
The genesis of District 9 (penned by Blomkamp with writing partner Terri Tatchell) dates back to a low-budget short movie entitled Alive in Joburg. This six-minute short, directed by Blomkamp, caught the eye of Peter Jackson who in turn hired the young South African to helm the screen adaptation of Halo. When the Halo project crumbled, Jackson gave his protégé the proper funding to create the feature-length expansion of Alive in Joburg as an alternative - and District 9 was the product.
Gritty faux-documentary footage is intermingled with first-rate CGI to mesmerising and convincing effect, giving a viewer the distinct impression they're on the lam beside Wikus. It's certainly far more compelling viewing than your typical high-gloss Hollywood production. Once District 9 shifts into its second half, there's action aplenty. And it's during these action sequences that Blomkamp shows real potential - they're expertly choreographed, gritty, easy to follow, and are able to generate tension and excitement (unlike Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Blomkamp's handheld style is effective, never too jerky, and never nauseating. With a vivid imagination and a taste for gore, the director additionally conceives an arsenal of alien weaponry capable of blasting and frying humans in a variety of gory ways. The film's R-rating from the MPAA is more than warranted.
The computer-generated special effects (created on a diminutive budget that would barely pay for Optimus Prime's left arm) are astonishing - the prawns are utterly convincing in their movements, body language and environmental interaction. The film even affords the occasional close-up, portraying thoughtful eyes and enough humanity to make these computer-generated aliens sympathetic to a viewer. District 9 is a big upwards step in the realm of CGI wizardry; the creatures are so realistic you'll quickly forget that they're digital creations, and focus on the story instead. It's a bit of a shame, then, that the film doesn't reveal more about these otherworldly beings. Our queries about the aliens aren't all explored since the key focus is on Wikus' (admittedly more interesting) story.
The human effect of District 9 is another strong asset - Wikus' transformation from government stooge to freedom fighter is gripping. It helps that South African actor Sharlto Copley turns in a stunning debut performance. Copley immerses himself into the character of Wikus Van De Merwe; he feels natural, not contrived. Meanwhile all the supporting actors - from the interviewees to Wikus' colleagues - are outstanding. However the characters themselves don't fare so well. The gung-go military forces, lead by stereotypically brutish jarheads, are quite predictable. There are some other minor issues here and there (basically just small issues with storytelling), but these are fairly forgivable considering Blomkamp's relative inexperience.
Chief among the most intriguing aspects of District 9 is the way director Blomkamp re-aligns our sympathies. Initially, aided by the documentary-style montage that recaps the prawns' arrival on Earth, an audience are neutral observers who naturally side with humanity. But as the story unfolds, and as we are privy to the atrocities committed within D9 on top of the inhumane manner in which the prawns are treated, our allegiances shift.
District 9 is one of the most eloquent and original science fiction movies of the decade. It showcases the efforts of an exciting new director skilled in mise-en-scène, pacing and suspense-building. It's amazing that the film was produced on such a paltry budget of $30 million. From a technical standpoint it's a triumph, and this indicates an economy of both filmmaking and storytelling that makes Neill Blomkamp a director worth watching out for. District 9 has the maverick, genre-bending energy of Peter Jackson's early works and it is directed by Blomkamp with an equally sure hand. It also proves there's intelligent alien life in the movie universe during the 2009 summer season.