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Monday, September 7, 2009

DISTRICT 9 (2009) - Neill Blomkamp

Four years ago, an unknown South African director named Neill Blomkamp released a short film called Alive In Joburg. The film caught the attention of Peter Jackson who, having obtained the rights to the Halo game franchise, offered Blomkamp the directorial duties on the adaptation. The movie was eventually put on hiatus. However, Blomkamp, with Jackson’s backing, wrote District 9, a feature that expanded on the ideas and themes put forth in Alive In Joburg. And now, we have that feature.

In 1990, a massive alien mother-ship came to a halt over the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. The aliens within the ship became refugees, looking for a new home on Earth. Initially, the aliens were welcomed by the human population. But soon the people of Johannesburg grew tired of the aliens and confined them to a camp, known as District 9. Twenty years later, and a corporation known as Multi-National United wants to forcibly move the residents of the now militarized ghetto away from Johannesburg and it’s citizens. The man in charge of serving the eviction notices is Wikus Van De Merwe. What he finds in District 9 will change his life forever, and draw the eyes of the world on the slum.

The best science fiction films don’t deal with situations, but with themes. The fantasy setting serves to drive the story. And District 9 is a film that manages to merge allegory with action and deliver something quite fantastic. The film is part mocumentary, part actioner, and to Blomkamp’s credit, he manages to merge the two elements almost seamlessly. The early part of the film deals with themes of displacement, apartheid, and xenophobia. The aliens, derisively nicknamed ‘prawns’ by the people of Johannesburg are the lowest on the social scale. They are regarded with suspicion and hatred. Where as once the black citizens were those that were looked down upon by the white citizens of South Africa, now the aliens are those who suffer the racism. It’s Blomkamp’s critique of apartheid that is the central driving force to the film.

But that’s is only one aspect of the film. The focus of the story is on Wikus Van De Merwe, who we are introduced to via the mocumentary footage at the beginning of the film. We follow him as we are introduced to District 9. As the film progresses, the mocumentary footage dwindles and the film becomes more narrative-based as Wikus struggles with an incident that threatens his life. (I’m trying desperately not to reveal too much here!) The last act of the film is where Blomkamp lets loose with the action as District 9 becomes embroiled in a frankly stunning gun fight involving humans and alien technology. It’s no loss that Blomkamp lets the allegorical side of the film take back seat to the action, as the action is absolutely nail-biting.

One of the other great strengths of the film is Blomkamp’s attention to detail. There are so many little smile-inducing moments of detail that just contribute to the overall success of the film. Little narrative and visual flourishes that show how a bit of dedication to quality really draw you into a film. The script moves at a blistering pace. There are moments where logic is abandoned and tiny plot-holes appear. However, you barely have a moment to dwell on these as Blomkamp keeps things moving towards a blistering climax.

District 9 cost $30,000,000 to make. Sounds like a lot. However, when you take into account that most Hollywood blockbusters cost somewhere in the region of $200,000,000+, it really makes you ask where the money in these films actually goes. The special effects in District 9, designed by Weta Workshop and created by Image Engine are staggeringly good. The CG aliens blend in with the live action footage without ever looking out of place. The effects serve the film, and not the other way round, and this is essentially what all CG should do. That it’s done so well in this film should serve as a lesson to other filmmakers who pack their films with all flash and no substance.

Sharlto Copley, an unknown actor from South Africa plays Wikus Van De Merwe, the man caught between following orders and doing what’s morally right. Copley delivers a fantastic performance, changing from a man who’s naive, a bit dim, but upbeat to the man of action as the story progresses. That he does a great deal of acting against unseen CG characters is a testament to his acting abilities. He’s initially somewhat of an unlikable character but you do engage with him and care about his story as events unfold. While some of the ‘villains’ of the film are a tad clich├ęd, they serve the purpose of the story and all the actors involved throw all they have into their performances.

Blomkamp draws upon a lot of influences in making District 9. However, combining these influences, he has delivered what is probably the best science fiction film of the 21 Century. A bold statement considering Children of Men, The Matrix, Moon, The Fountain and Primer all fall into that category. But District 9 really manages to edge all these films out. Great sci-fi makes you take a look at the world you live in. And while District 9 makes you do this, it also has one of the great climactic battle scenes of recent times in terms of cinematography and ideas. This is science fiction at it’s best. And Blomkamp is the new wunderkind of the genre.


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