2009 has been an incredible year for science fiction films. Duncan Jones’ impressive Moon and James Cameron’s super-hyped Avatar can consider themselves in extremely good company with District 9. Director Neill Blomkamp has a very bright future ahead of him. Based on Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg, District 9 is quite simply one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen from a first time director, period. Spoilers to follow.
The movie is not without its shortcomings; at times the film lacks discipline and suffers from directorial overindulgence. Blomkamp was given free reign by producer Peter Jackson — a luxury many directors would kill for — and it shows. But that new director naïveté helps the film as often as it hurts it. Moments of selfish excess aside, the film is full of brilliant set pieces and quiet character moments. District 9 is easily one of the most unique and original film I’ve seen in years.
District 9 looks like a $100 million dollar movie, but was actually made for a ‘paltry’ $30 million. The scale of the film is much larger than the trailers let on; the documentary style intro to the film is very misleading. The special effects in District 9 are absolutely incredible; effects houses including Peter Jackson’s WETA and Vancouver based Image Engine, The Embassy and Zoic were firing on all cylinders — add to the mix Blomkamp, a former effects artist himself, and the results are absolutely spectacular. The aliens in the film feel so real, so human. Their ships, mechs and weaponry feel equally real and terrifyingly believable.
The main character, Wikus van der Merwe, works for the corporation tasked with keeping the aliens under control. At the start of the film Wikus has very clear prejudices against the aliens, treating them like animals, with little or no sympathy for their plight. He’s a sniveling pencil pusher and the son-in-law of the boss. You see his office life and you despise him. It is only his home life that begins to humanize the character. That being said, the audience will go from absolutely hating the guy at the beginning of the film, to really hating the guy by the middle of the movie. Thankfully, the character’s arc is all about redemption, by the end of the film the audience will literally be cheering for him. The actor who plays Wikus, Sharlto Copely, is great for the most part. At times it felt like he was almost too into the role; during the action scenes he yells, screams and curses up a storm. He was clearly having a lot of fun making this movie, but it was a little over the top.
The film also has many quiet moments spent with the aliens. They’ve been living like animals for over 20 years, you can’t help but sympathize with them. There is one young alien featured in the movie, little CJ, and it will truly break your heart to see what he goes through. Little CJ and his father Christopher Johnson are just trying to survive, like anyone would, in a world out of control. These aren’t the cliché scary aliens we’re used to (though their chitinous appearance does earn them the derogatory nickname ‘prawn’), in fact they frequently appear more kind and caring than the humans in the film — they’re pitiful creatures being used and abused by humanity.
For all the great character moments in the film, I have to talk about the amazing action scenes that are barely alluded to in the trailers for the film. Not only is District 9 action packed, but it’s also surprisingly violent and incredibly gory. This movie is not cheesy horror movie violent, we’re talking horrific Paul Verhoeven violent. Multiple-dudes-exploding violent. There are more exploding heads in this movie than there were in Scanners! Additionally, if you ever wanted to see an alien mecha use a gravity gun to pick up a live pig and launch it at someone, well then this is the movie for you. The finale of the film is so action packed, it’s almost too much. At times it devolves into nothing but shooting and explosions, which are in stark contrast to the more low key moments in the first and second acts. You have to forgive Blomkamp for this indulgence though, he did get to play with Peter Jackson money after all. Peter Jackson told him to go all out for his first film, and he did. You can’t fault him for that.
The historical allegory to apartheid South Africa is clear, but it never feels preachy or in your face. Instead, it just feels like Blomkamp trying to explore the troubled history of his homeland in a way that he’s most comfortable with. Good science fiction has always been about exploring sensitive social, historical and political issues in ways that aren’t possible with any other genre.
District 9 is a sometimes subtle, sometimes over-the-top movie. If you consider yourself a lover of film, you owe yourself the experience of seeing this movie. The unique premise paired with the compelling story and the mind-blowing special effects make District 9 the must see movie of the year.