random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Thursday, August 13, 2009

REEL REVIEW: District 9 (2009) ***1/2


written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
produced by: Peter Jackson
directed by: Neill Blomkamp

"District 9" is worthy of becoming the sleeper sci-fi hit of the summer. It may resemble aspects of previous films but for a change it's not a prequel, sequel, remake or reboot. Why, in that sense, it may even be considered refreshing. For a movie made on a small budget of $30 million, consisting of no-name actors and an even lesser-known South African-born director, that's quite an accomplishment. The film starts out in a documentary style fashion and then lays out an imaginative story set in a unique landscape.
For over two decades, an enormous spaceship has mysteriously made its home hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. The residents became accustomed to living in the shadow of this behemoth, yet there were questions looming. How and why did this ship arrive on Earth? It's unclear how it lost gas and parked itself above this particular city back in 1982. It didn't take long though for the government to jimmy their way in. There they found a hurt, hungry, and destitute alien species in need of a home. A familiar state for many refugees who make their way to another civilization but quite an unfamiliar sight for us humans.
Initially, there was a well-intentioned alien integration effort attempted but that didn't last long. The aliens soon experienced human prejudice, poverty and the apartheid policies of the time which already segregating nonwhites. To the working class locals, the aliens have become not just an unpredictable threat but quite a financial drain as well. A portion of their tax-paying dollars are spent providing for District 9, the shantytown ghetto the aliens have been assigned to reside in. Regardless of their mental and technological advances, they are labeled "Prawns" due to their offensive, crustacean-like appearance. While they can speak our language and can walk as we do, they resemble a cockroach/shrimp hybrid that is quite disgusting. This and their love for cat food doesn't make for good alien PR much less help in amicable inter-species relations.
Over time, as the human complaints rise, the restlessness and anger of the aliens come to a boil as well. Something had to be done. That's where private-interest corporation Multi- National United (MNU) are brought in to try to sell the aliens on relocating to District 10, a "better location", otherwise known as concentration camps. We soon see pencil-pushing bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), married to the boss' daughter (Vanessa Hayword), assigned as the supervising field agent of this forced eviction. Wikus comes across as an almost likable company guy, happy to follow through with his mission regardless of whose life it costs. Surrounded the MNU military police and cameramen, he exudes an expected air of prejudice and arrogance. We see a layer of fear and apprehension underneath his facade that is inevitably revealed in a most harrowing way.
Through a careless mishap, Wikus is thrust into a life-changing transformation that sends him on the run, becoming Joburg's most wanted man. Not to give too much away but it soon becomes quite clear that everyone wants a piece of him, literally. From the MNU military leader Koobus (David James) and the weapon-hungry corporate heads, to the Nigerian smugglers that call District 9 home, it seems he has no one to turn to except those which he sought to evict. Wikus forms an awkward alliance out of necessity with an alien named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son, Little CJ, in hopes of self-preservation. Not only does this relationship form the heart of the movie, it also catapults the film into an adrenalized and excited climax.
This is the gritty R-rated world that writer and director Neill Blomkamp has established and immersed us in. It should be noted that some scenes, while essential in conveying the appropriate drama, are not always easy to stomach. There's no getting around the handheld camerawork that some viewers can't stand, and the dramatic gore and vivid action scenes may be a bit much as the humans and aliens mistreat each other in a variety of ways. At no point does any of this feel gratuitous or indulgent. In combining the timeless themes of segregation, prejudice, and xenophobia with the sci-fi genre, Blomkamp has no choice but to portray how it might actually all go down in his.
At 29 years-old, Blomkamp has made an intelligent, stylized directorial debut with the help of producer Peter Jackson and co-writer Terri Tatchell. This not only makes him one to watch in the future but it should also instill hope in a genre that has lately relied on CGI and bombastic explosions over style, substance and characterization. The CGI here is flawless and serves the story well. Even in the bleached-out daylight, the aliens we see walk around feel like actual beings that were placed in these tin-shacked slums. Add to that the character of the smug Wikus and we are given someone to follow in a world we already invested in. We want to know what becomes of him even if he's not all that likable, we can relate to his desperation. Therefore, credit must be given to another first-timer, actor Sharlto Copley, who displays a wide range of talent, digging deep where needed, and at times, quite funny. It would be no surprise to see Copley and Blomkamp work together again in the future.
Smart films of this genre are sadly something rare in this world of short-attention span viewers. A film like Duncan Jones' (another debut) recent "Moon" is an exception that comes to mind. Despite how enthralling a film like this is, it seldom reaches the masses it deserves. The film already has great buzz with the studios' creative viral-marketing, and the contagious praise from the San Diego Comicon but it will still take continued word-of-mouth to succeed. Far from the typical alien invasion we often see, this is an action-packed story with an engaging, emotional awareness amid all the Prawn-human chaos.

The Skinny:

  • As part of the marketing campaign in North America, posters were put up in major cities on bus stops, the sides of buildings, etc. designating areas that were restricted for humans only, with a number to call (866.666.6001) in order to report non-humans. The title of the film was generally not included, although the URL address for the film's official website was.
  • The initial premise of the whole film is based on the Short Film Alive in Joburg (2005), written and directed by Blomkamp, which depicted in a a documentary-style the struggles of social interaction between aliens and inhabitants of Johannesburg ("Joburg"), South Africa.
  • he film was based on director Neill Blomkamp's childhood in South Africa during apartheid.
  • After the feature film based on the _HALO: Combat Evolved_' video game series which was to be directed by Neill Blomkamp fell through, producer Peter Jackson went to Blomkamp and offered him $30 million to make whatever he wanted. The result was this film.
  • Sharlto Copley had not acted before and had no intention of pursuing an acting career. He stumbled into the leading role as 'Neill Blomkamp' placed him on-camera during the short film.
  • All of the "prawns" in the film are CGI with the sole exception of the ones on the operating table in the medical lab.
  • The mutilated animal carcasses in the background of many scenes were real and with only a few exceptions, were already in the real slums and shacks used for the filming.
  • All the shacks in District 9 were actual shacks that exists in a section of Johannesburg which were to be evacuated and the residents moved to better government housing, paralleling the events in the film. Also paralleling, the residents had not actually been moved out before filming began. The only shack that was created solely for filming was Christopher Johnson's shack.
  • Backstory for many elements of the film had been created but not explained on film, such as why only the prawns could use their weapons and humans could not.
  • The creatures used in the small fighting arena were meant to be rodents/pests which were aboard the ship.
  • The idea of the prawns being obsessed with cat food came from two inspirations. In impoverished areas of Johannesburg, Neill Blomkamp would see people selling cheese poofs and other snack foods out of large 3-foot tall bags and wanted the aliens to have a similar cheap food. The decision to make them cat food came from one of the producers who used canned cat food to bait hooks when fishing for prawns in Vancouver.





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