Principal Cast : Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Eugene Wanangwa Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, Kenneth Nkosi, William Allen Young, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, John Sumner, Nick Blake, Jed Brophy, Vittoria Leonardi, Johan van Schoor, Marian Hooman, Jonathan Taylor.
Synopsis: Aliens exist, and live among us. But what happens when we don’t want them to live here any more?
Aliens are back. But this time, they’re refugees.
I sit here, fresh from a screening of District 9, mind awash with questions and a stunning lack of answers. How on Earth did director Neill Blomkamp pull this off? This film manages to grab the viewer by the throat and tear your eyeballs out through the back of your head. District 9 is violent, aggressive, occasionally amusing, and altogether searing in it’s indictment on human brutality. Plus, it’s one of the best science fiction films ever made. And for those of you who know me, know that’s not a statement I make lightly.
District 9 takes place in the present, although the first portion of the film takes us through a montage of sorts of the history of the current issue: aliens have come to Earth, and we must assist them. Through the use of pseudo documentary and newsreel footage, we learn that nearly thirty years ago, an enormous alien craft arrived on Earth and hovered, unmoving and seemingly innate, over the South African city of Johannesburg. Humans decided to board the craft to find out if there was anything on board, living or dead, that would explain it: what they found was the human equivalent of extra-terrestrial boat-people. Strange alien creatures, who appear frail and infirm, have traversed the stars and arrived on Earth, and boy do they need our help. So, we do what any good race of enlightened beings does: we help them. We set up a special camp for them, (the titular district 9) a kind of shanty town in which they can recuperate, only to slowly, over time, become more aggressive to them. Humanity has a way of rebounding from the goodwill generated by an outpouring of public opinion, and the alien presence soon becomes a problem for the government of South Africa. Like unwanted refugees, the aliens seem to become a displaced people. By the time District 9 plays out it’s “present time” reel, humanity has had enough of the aliens and wants them gone.
A private corporation known as MNU has been tasked with relocating the aliens (referred to as “prawns” throughout the film, a derogatory term that is indicative of both their looks and their status as guests on our planet) to a new district, a more controllable district, outside of Johannesburg, and it’s this removal from district 9 where we commence the main action of the film. Enthusiastic, yet slightly ignorant, MNU staffer Wikus Van Der Merwe is given the job of leading the relocation taskforce, a military operation led, essentially, by a civilian. The eviction of the aliens to the new district is made harder by the fact that none of them want to leave, so it soon becomes a more violent, brutal job than Wikus has been prepared for. And when Wikus is accidentally sprayed with a strange alien substance, things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly, the hunter becomes the hunted, as the effects this goop have on Wikus’ body soon make him the most wanted man alive. After escaping from MNU headquarters, a fugitive, Wikus takes to the slums of district 9 to try and salvage his humanity. And in salvaging that, perhaps he can also help the aliens save themselves.
I don’t want to spoil this brilliant film by giving away a whole bunch of plot twists, so I will refrain from making comment on some of the films more significant elements of story. I will instead reflect a little on my overall thoughts on this masterpiece. I say masterpiece advisedly, because not everybody will enjoy this movie. It’s not a movie you can “enjoy” in the true sense ofthe word. It’s a graphic, violent affair, gore and viscera spraying across the screen with abandon in the films highly aggressive final act. This is not a film for the weak of stomach or the frail of mind: powerhouse performances and a genuinely amazing production ethic make District 9 one for the ages. Here in Australia, the film has opened with one of the most befuddling advertising campaigns I’ve seen for a major film like this, even though it’s not your typical mainstream fare from Hollywood. District 9 has an almost independent film feel, backed up by some of the most amazing effects you’re likely to see this year. And when you read that the budget for this film started at around $30 million, as opposed to the zillion dollar bloated budget of Transformers 2, you’ll understand why I can sit here and say I think D9 is the far superior film.
First, the story. Blomkamp has taken his short film subject, Alive In Joberg [YouTube clip at bottom of review…Ed.], which is essentially this film distilled into a shorter period, and expanded it with big budget effects. I admit to not having seen the entire film, although snippets and abridged versions are readily available on YouTube (of course), so you can kind of get the gist of the feel of this movie. District 9 takes that short, low-budget premise and makes it look like Sesame Street macramé. The themes and idea behind District 9 are primal, often elemental. Humanity stands upon the brink of an enormous moral gulf: we have all seen man’s inhumanity to man, played out in conflicts across the globe since time immemorial. We know how in this rapidly expanding commercial world the almighty dollar stands proudly as our greatest deity; as a species, we have grown decadent and immoral. Sermonizing aside, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Some may say that not everybody is like that, but as a massive generalization, as a species we have well and truly screwed things up. So when the chance comes to help our fellow inhabitants of this universe we live in, when the moment comes to stand up and show just how good we are, we do so: but only until it starts to cost us. The almighty dollar, that very vestibule on which we have created our civilization, runs rampant across this story, as the MNU, a massive commercial conglomerate, decides that the alien technology, particularly the weaponry, needs to be exploited for profit, our deepest ethical dilemmas are laid bare. We have a chance to assist beings from another world: instead, we slide them into a slum and lock the door, only deigning to go there when the moments suits us. These poor alien creatures, who have travelled unknown light-years for help or safety, soon have that single flame of hope extinguished in the depravity and desolation of Johannesburg.
That’s not to say that Blomkamp’s film is an indictment on that country itself, or even the action so big business: no, I think he intended a grander scope. District 9, as a story, could have happened anywhere. But it doesn’t, it happens in South Africa. Even the documentary footage has a snippet pertaining to the fact that it wasn’t an event in New York or Washington (as so many disaster/alien movies are) but in a city and country not exactly known for grandiose, planet shaking events. Which, I think, is entirely the point. New Yorkers may very well spy a giant UFO coming in to land in Central Park, make some sort of snide remark about property prices, and then go back to their Starbucks. In South Africa, where the country is still getting past the long desolation of Apartheid rule, things aren’t as clear cut. Politics, even humanity’s own internal politics, are always involved. Wikus himself becomes a pawn in the game of financial gain, when he discovers the real truth behind MNU’s policies. And it’s got nothing to do with peace and love. District 9 pares back our own ethics and shows us just how depraved we can be, no matter what the cosmic implications of our stupidity might be. People, not aliens, are animals, even though here, that appears not to be the case: humans treat the aliens as guests, then intruders, then as outright pests. A slow, subtle extermination is perhaps on the cards, and for all the world it seems slightly Nazi-like. Indeed, a reference to concentration camps is made during the film, as our hero begins to understand the broader picture of the situation he finds himself in, having to depend upon alien help to survive. Parallels to historical moments abound here, elements of other stories are slipped in: from experimentation on humans and aliens, a la just about every serious sci-fi movie ever made, to a bizarre Starship Troopers-style weapons check, to the profit-before-people mentality of the faceless elite. Fundamentally, if you were to strip the film down to a dot point list, thee primary elements are of racism, depravity for profit, class systems by which we denigrate those with less at the expense of obtaining more, and elitism of the highest order. Timely, appallingly still-current narratives that resonate throughout the world today.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t fault the general plot. The film does tend to drag towards melancholy a lot, so be wary if you are expecting some light-hearted moments (they’re all at the beginning of the film) because the darkness descends upon proceedings quite quickly, and never gets lighter. It’s not an easy story to tell, and Blomkamp should be applauded for trying to tell this story in a way that’s not entirely unbelievable. Could this kind of story happen? Perhaps! Unlike a Spielberg or Michael Bay, flashing explosions and queasy saccharine sweetness where there never should be any, Blomkamp relies less on flashy visuals (more on those in a moment) than he does at simply telling the story. I often lament that too many films rely on digital effects to the detriment of the story, that to see District 9achieve what it does, in the way it does, is jaw-droppingly refreshing. It’s not a very complicated story, per se, but the themes involved are, and while Blomkamp never beats you over the head with a “hey, here’s what you should be thinking” film-making mentality, there’s enough going on to make you think “okay, I understand what’s happening” and move on. It’s so nice not to be force-fed the moral high-ground.
As far as acting goes, there are really two main stars of this film. First, human actor Sharlto Copley, whose credits prior to this film are singularly small: he’s produced a few short films as well as the aforementioned Alive In Joburg for Blomkamp. Second, the digital alien creatures, which are simply stunning to watch. Copley drives this film, as a naive Wikus, a man devoid of Bruce Willis-like qualities to which this film is most definitely not suited. Wikus seems to be portrayed at the beginning of the film as a bit of an idiot, a wannabe MNU honcho who happens to be married to the boss’s daughter. But when he is thrust into the unlikely situation of having to flee from humanity due to persecution, and try and find a way of fighting back, he has to take on so much that you wonder how on Earth he’s going to do it. He’s a coward, a scaredy-cat figure with about as much bravado and chest-beating machismo as a bowl of custard. When given the option, he’d rather run like hell than stand and fight. Yep, he’s a complete wanker most of the time, but somehow, you just keep cheering him on, hoping against hope he’ll come through this ordeal in one piece. Copley owns this film: he’s by far the main force that the film rests upon, and I think it took some serious balls by Blomkamp to give his first major film over to an unknown quantity like that. Copley is all the right emotional buttons at all the right times: frightened, pissed off, scared, and mostly, just wanting the nightmare to end and be able to go home to his wife. It’s a staggering performance by him, and truthfully, I am glad they didn’t get a “name” actor to star. The problem these days with brand actors is that they tend to detract from the story. I think it’s a brave choice to hand the lead role to an actor so unknown by an audience he’s barely listed on Wikipedia or iMDB. And thankfully, it pays off. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, which handed the acting reins to people so below standard that it’s impossible to imagine how the world was sucked in by that charlataneous act, District 9 revels in its gritty, urban realism, from opening frame to closing shot, and the acting complements this superbly.
Speaking of realism, if you want to see aliens done right and perfect, here’s your chance. The films special effects are perfectly rendered, the alien occupants of the film look so realistic it’s scary; after the first few moments of them being on screen, it becomes almost second nature to expect them to be there. They’re so well done that the film effortlessly glides along with them in almost every corner of the frame. The aliens are up close and personal, you can see the shine and spit on their carapaces. They exist within our world, interact and intertwine with it in a way I haven’t seen before. A few moments of awkward movement here and there, quickly obliterated by some cataclysmic epic moments in razor-sharp detail. These aliens are real, and by the half way point of the film you forget they’re actually effects. Somebody’s gone in and put those guys in there, or, should I say, one single guy. Apparently (and I haven’t confirmed this yet, but the source is generally reliable) every alien was performance captured by the same guy! And considering the sheer volume of shots in which aliens move through the frame, that’s an absolute nightmare to try and calculate! For those thinking that the creature effects might be on par with a ow-budget Doctor Who episode, you’ll be surprised. In fact, what I was surprised most of was just how much Blomkamp and Jackson squeezed out of this film for the money they spent. This is a big budget film, made for the equivalent of chump change by some Hollywood standards. Shot on RED cameras (which, to the uninitiated, are the next generation of digital high-def cameras, shooting above the resolution of 35mm film) and featuring a no-name cast, it’s easy to see where the money was actually spent: the effects! And boy, it’s a non-stop effect reel for the digital geek! The enormous alien spacecraft dominates the skyline of just about every shot, more often obscured by smog and pollution, other times crystal clear and perfectly focused. The final assault on district 9 by the MNU military force, with bodies and limbs flying and exploding, all with the hand-held documentary style we’ve come to expect from The Bourne trilogy.
I think the power of this film lies primarily in it’s style: the handheld way in which the camera moves through the story puts you right in the thick of the action. When bullets and laser beams start to fly, the camera, almost as an afterthought, is caught up in it to. The camera is shaken, falls over, is almost destroyed itself in the heat of battle, a truly awesome way of taking your audience and putting them right in the heart of the conflict. Spielberg did it with Private Ryan, and Blomkamp has taken that to the nth degree here. It’s this style of film-making, coupled with the truly extraordinary special effects, that make this film really shine.
As a last minute thought, I have to mention the score by composer Clinton Shorter. I didn’t notice it. Which, I guess, you have to admit is probably a good thing, since if you don’t notice the music then it’s doing the right thing. The music in a film should always accompany and enhance the on-screen action, but in theory you shouldn’t be actively there listening to it. With Shorter’s brilliant score, which I’m going to have to get onto iTunes and listen to again, it complemented the film in a way that I never noticed the audio cues that prefaced any action. Another minor note: the editing on this film is superb. If Julian Clarke’s work here isn’t recognized come Oscar time I’m going to be more than a little annoyed. The film, even though it flashes between doco and realism, flows beautifully. Often, people screw up the whole flashback montage stuff (especially if you’re starting a film that way) but here, the narrative is smooth enough that we understand the transitions, and jagged enough to give is the required raw feeling to get us into the mental head-space Blomkamp requires us to be. And the bravura finale, when everything goes truly pear-shaped, is just bordering on cacophonously discombobulating but still understandable, which is a testament to a really good editor. Otherwise, the film could very well have descended into an incomprehensible mess (a little like the end of Transformers 2!).
District 9 is a heavy film, of that there’s no denying. It’s a brilliantly conceived look at humanity and just how far we’ve come (or, perhaps not) as a species in this enlightened age. The species-ism on display here is truly sickening, and as a fellow human you feel angry towards the human characters on screen, simply doing their job. By the end of the film, though, you’d cheering at least one of them on. Staggeringly good, taut, frightening, District 9 is not a place on Earth I’d particularly like to visit, but if you get the chance, get along to see this flick in the cinema. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it is a brilliant one.