District 9 (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 12, 2010  | 
Sony (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1 Descriptive Audio. English, English (FHI) Subtitles. 108 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Kenneth Nkosi, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minaar, William Allen Young
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Country: USA
External Links
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Twenty years ago, contact was made with aliens. A huge and seemingly derelict spaceship parked itself above Johannesburg, South Africa. Aboard were over a million malnourished and otherwise ill crustacean-like aliens, who were taken in by the humans and despite all best intentions were restricted to living in an internment camp that became a ghetto – District 9. The aliens, who have a strange affinity for cat-food, became known as "prawns", and their slum-like shanty-town became a centre for illegal activity, human and alien alike. The mother-ship hangs over Johannesburg, a constant reminder for the humans below of their extremely unwelcome guests.

It really shouldn't come as any surprise that the first real major sci-fi horror blockbuster set in South Africa and featuring cast and crew members from that country examines the topic of racial segregation and prejudice, and does so in a way that's brutal and heavy-handed, but at the same time honest and genuine, making no apologies for that nation's history under apartheid. Matter of fact, some South African friends of mine who lived in Johannesburg during apartheid went to see District 9 during its Australian theatrical run had to leave the cinema during the film, the imagery being upsettingly close to real life ghettos in Johannesburg and treatment of the black community who dwelt within them by the white government in the 1960s and 70s when they were growing up. I can understand the reaction – for a non-South African it's still pretty gritty and confronting, but with that added layer of memory and experience, it must be something else again.

Wikus van der Merwe (first time actor Sharlto Copley – and he does a superb job) works for the human/alien relations division of MNU (Multi-National United), but as he's introduced to us in the documentary footage framing narrative, he's as casually racist (if that's indeed the right word given the fact we're talking about beings from a different planet) as most of the other South Africans, black, white or otherwise throughout the rest of the film. Despite the fact he's meant to be working with the aliens, he still refers to them as prawns, belittles their intelligence, patronises them, bullies them with bureaucratic procedure, acts illegally when put in charge of evicting the aliens and relocating them to a concentration camp conveniently for the humans some 200 miles further away from Jo'burg. He's an initially unsympathetic character through his own lack of sympathy towards the plight of the race he's meant to be helping. He's also bumblingly clumsy, self-aggrandising and not terribly competent at his job – the caricature of the public servant.

And so Wikus, the MNU and a team of mercenaries head to District 9 (filmed on location in a pretty beat up area of Soweto, partially built on landfill – it really aids the film's cinema verite vibe) to hand out eviction notices to the aliens, but something goes wrong. As Wikus is conducting an illegal search of an alien's residence (I hesitate to call it a house only because one good sneeze would probably demolish it), he comes into contact with a mysterious cylinder containing a black liquid drained from other pieces of alien technology. Having already exploited the aliens themselves, the government and he military want to exploit their technology, especially their weaponry – the reason they haven't? The technology relies on the user having alien DNA. Wikus is about to learn this lesson in a very hard way indeed.

The black liquid contaminates Wikus – he wakes up in a hospital to find that a minor wound on his left arm has resulted in his arm turning into that of one of the aliens. He's immediately quarantined by the MNU who conduct a battery of tests upon him, wanting to harvest his DNA in order to allow greater use of the alien weaponry, having first ascertained that Wikus can indeed use it himself, by making him fire it upon pig carcasses, and eventually live aliens.

This is really the point where two things happen under the surface of the film. The first change is in the tone of the film, mainly due to Wikus' plight and the military's reaction to it. One hint that he's no longer fully human, and his rights are instantly stripped away, he becomes an object rather than a person – a tool, whose initial comedic ineptitude takes a back seat to his being more of an "everyman" kind of character, and, despite what I said before, we now start to sympathise with him. His inner humanity and our need to see justice done combine with our disgust and moral outrage at the treatment he receives (and, to a lesser extent, was initially doling out). Secondly, the director's message becomes sharper, more barbed and unflinching (and it starts out pretty up-front to begin with, let me tell you).

There's no thought to cure the poor fella (the scene where he first sees the infection and tries to run away from his own arm is blackly funny, until the military drag him kicking and screaming from the hospital, his wife, and by extension, any kind of normalcy in his life), they simply want to use him. The motive? The usual human failings: greed, power and the desire to put yourself above the other guy at any cost. But Wikus makes one of his trademark escapes (there are a number of deus ex machina escapes and rescues during the film's second half) and goes to the only place he can: District 9.

But things aren't quite so easy as all that. Y'see, once it becomes known that he's escaped, the government want him back and start to use the media to spread bogus stories that Wikus is highly contagious, as well as stepping up the already brutal treatment of the inmates of the ghetto in their attempt to recapture him. The vicious military presence and their containment of the aliens in the film may appear intrusive, but cast your mind back twenty years or so to real life events in South Africa and it bears a grim and uncomfortable ring of truth. The vilification of the media and the uncaring nature of the man on the street (again presented to us via TV vox pops interviews) further exemplify this. Blomkamp is not presenting us with a view of a caring society struggling under a fascist junta; he's showing us a human population, the majority of whom are complicit in their government's ill-treatment and abuse of the outsiders, the underclass bereft of rights.

Wikus is offered a chance to have his DNA changed back to that of being solely human, but it's a risky chance at best. Then again, seeing as how he's being hunted down like an animal by the government as well as some Nigerian gangsters, both parties wanting to exploit his new-found ability to use the aliens' visually impressive and extremely powerful weaponry to their own advantage. The last half an hour of District 9 moves rapidamento (and the first hour or so is no slouch in the pacing department) towards its conclusion with a few unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Given the fact that Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the splat-tastic fun of Bad Taste and Brain Dead) is one of the producers here, you can understand that the film has a pretty polished sheen to it. The direction is assured, the pacing keeps the film moving along ensuring the audience is glued to the screen, the characterisation might be in broad brush-strokes to begin with but the quality acting brings a certain level of pathos to the fore, and the special effects are pretty damned special, let me tell you. Despite the high level of CGI effects, I never once felt jarred out of the film by them. My usual reaction to CGI is to want to stab myself in the eye with a rusty fork, but these effects are very well-rendered indeed – some of the best CGI I've seen (probably not all that surprising, given director Blomkamp's past as an animator). You buy what you see on the screen, simple as that. And there are some pretty gooey scenes of violence to nourish your inner gore-hound, too. Altogether, that's pretty impressive for what is essentially a low budget (albeit still studio) film.

One thing that I think really strengthens the film is its use of different filming techniques to further give it a sense of verite. The picture comes through "regular" narrative, but also there's a strong use of faux TV footage, security camera footage, the faux-documentary that provides us with the framing narrative – the film has a strong sense of immediacy, as if we're watching real events while they unfold. It was a good decision on the director's part, and one that was used in a way that never becomes intrusive.

I'd say that District 9 is a film with definite re-watch value. It's a taut, tough-talking, sci-fi/action film with a brain and a conscience. Sure, it might seem a little obvious at times, and in the interactions between Wikus and his wife, the emotional appeal is kinda forced (but believable, unlike the nauseatingly cloying relationship material in Cloverfield), but boy does it kick some goals in every other respect. Probably one of the best genre films of the last ten years.
No complaints here. With such a recent film, not to mention one with a decent budget, it'd be surprising if it wasn't top notch. The only degrading of the picture image is deliberate to show the use of different film stock.
5.1 suits action films well, putting you firmly in the midst of things. Such is the case here. Coupled with the documentary style and narrative footage set in the ghetto, it really puts you a sense of place. Explosions and gunfire? Sounding good!
Extra Features
Briefly? A lot of them. On the first disc there's a commentary track with Neill Blomkamp, as well as some deleted scenes, and a three-part director's log (this is broken up into three sections, pre-, during, and post- production; it's actually more a "making of" featurette rather than only being from Blomkamp's perspective, so it's kind of mistitled). There's also a second disc, which presents you with a bunch of featurettes, obviously filmed at the same time as that of the "director's log": Metamorphosis – the Transformation of Wikus, Innovation – The Acting and Improvisation of District 9, Concept and Design – Creating the World of District 9, and Alien Generation – the Visual Effects of District 9. These are very "nuts and bolts" kind of docos, and really are for the more dedicated movie geek fan – folks who are buying this release strictly for the film won't lose anything by buying the one disc edition. That said, it's pretty fascinating given how the high level of realism was achieved. I always feel that seeing how the magic is made kind of detracts from the end product a little.

Now if you still haven't had your fill of the film, my copy came with a third disc (not actually part of the package, it came separately in a cardboard sleeve) featuring 15 minutes of Blomkamp, Copley and Jackson appearing at Comicon, discussing the film and doing a little Q&A. This release is about as comprehensive as you could hope for.

On the first disc, there's also a Blu-Ray promotional trailer and some irritating trailers for a whole bunch of unrelated films that immediately start after the equally annoying copyright "You wouldn't steal a car" ad that all local discs are prey to (which showed up again on the second disc – I sometimes think people download films just to avoid that fucking thing). Thank the lord for Menu buttons.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
District 9 is a film that at times doesn't really make you all that proud to be human. The allegory that permeates the film of the mistreatment of others who don't deserve it, the evils of prejudice, the abuse of power, the potential for evil in human nature and our fear of the unknown through human treatment of the aliens is not a subtle one, but it is definitely believable, and there are enough historical precedents to give it credence. On a purely film-watching level, it is a highly entertaining bit of science fiction, produced at a time when the genre really needed a shot in the arm. It's also an astonishingly strong feature debut by a talent whose name you should really keep an eye out for.

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