District 9

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood
Genre: Science Fiction

Wow! What a movie!

District 9 is summer 2009’s most unique entry. While I loved Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation and even thought Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was decent, I must say that District 9 is a serious contender for summer 2009’s biggest – and best – movie…and this on a budget of about 1/5 that of Star Trek and less than 1/6 that of Terminator or Transformers.

The story is simple and straightforward; you already know it if you watched the trailer: a gigantic alien spaceship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa and the aliens (called “Prawns” due to their resemblance to crustaceans) end up living among human beings in a ghetto slum called District 9. They live in poverty and squalor, so crime and racial tensions ensue. After 20 years of this, the government decides enough is enough. The aliens must be forcibly moved to a concentration-camp-like location away from the human population. The film takes off from there.

And what a ride it is.

The movie is filmed like a documentary, interspersing interview clips of various government employees as well as friends and family of the main human character. Thankfully, the shaky-cam work is held to a minimum, but does give certain scenes a remarkably realistic feeling. In fact, much of the movie seems so real, you could almost be watching an episode of Cops.

It starts off simply enough and evolves into a fast-paced and suspenseful all-out alien action movie. But don’t expect to see any sterile space battles or alien attack cruisers duking it out. Instead, it’s more of a war movie as alien technology is unleashed against government mercenaries and Nigerian mobsters on the filthy, garbage-strewn streets of District 9 amidst firefights and explosions galore.

One of the best aspects of the movie is how much thought and care went into making everything seem real. Not just real in the sense of brilliant computer work, but in the sense that the science of the alien technology and the aliens themselves look like they could exist in our world. There are no flashy laser beams or lightsabers. The weapons look industrial in nature. They have a utilitarian look and weight to them that suggests it’s dangerous even to just handle them. When fired, they project nasty, brutal explosions of force and electric jets of energy that react convincingly with everything around them. It’s gritty and real…and devastating!

And this brings me to one aspect of the movie left untold in the trailers: the movie is rated R for a reason. That alien technology I mentioned? Well, it doesn’t screw around. When those force beams meet a human body…well, let’s just say the human body loses. Big time.

Having said that, the violence isn’t sensationalistic or overblown. Like a war movie, it seems real, like this is what would happen if aliens were fighting with their own technology sourced from parts available in our world.

Next, I should mention the aliens themselves. Very cool. Very realistic. Very lifelike. Every alien in the movie is based off motion-capture technology from just one human actor. The motion-capture images were then used to render all the aliens in brilliant CGI. But the results are different than you might expect. These aliens are living, breathing creatures interacting with their environment. When you see an alien being interrogated and beaten there in the street, it looks like a frickin’ alien is being interrogated and beaten there in the street! Simply amazing stuff far beyond anything that might have been expected from such a tiny budget.

Finally, I should mention that District 9 doesn’t break any new ground in the story department. The plot is very straightforward. No subplots, convoluted story arcs, or twist endings. It’s a gritty sci-fi action movie with an interesting social commentary as its backdrop.

Though racism is a key component driving the story, the film thankfully manages to avoid seeming preachy or ham fisted in its handling of discrimination. Instead, the whole apartheid issue with the setting in South Africa speaks for itself. The theme is driven home by signs in the background saying “humans only” and the obvious contempt and disgust the human characters have for the aliens. The concept is more akin to Star Trek in tackling social issues of importance, while the look of the film is unlike anything else you’ve seen.

The movie provides a unique lens for racism because, as is often the case in history, humans can justify racism in any instance where they feel it can either be made to seem reasonable or palatable to others. In District 9, the concept is interesting because pretty much everyone can rationalize their racism since those being discriminated against aren’t human. Therefore, it seems fully justified…appropriate, even. After all, who wants creepy aliens living next door or tax dollars being spent on their care? This dehumanizing aspect is realistic since, historically, racism is an innately dehumanizing concept. District 9 just takes it literally, proving that anyone can be a racist if placed in the proper situation and faced with the right minority group.

While the story may be simplistic, there is, however, some great character development. The lead human character, upon which the whole movie focuses, is Wikus Van De Merwe, the government bureaucrat charged with leading the mission to forcibly evict and relocate the aliens. The story and interview clips follow his progress from nerdy project leader and family man to hunted fugitive. His whole life comes unraveled as he begins – very much against his will – to empathize with the aliens and their plight after accidental exposure to their biotechnology. The character is played by first-time actor Sharlto Copley, who is excellent in the role. His performance is even more remarkable considering that he’s normally a writer and producer! This isn’t the typical movie the Motion Picture Academy looks to for Oscar contenders, but Copley should get a nomination.

In closing, this is one of the first movies I’ve seen in a long time where I sat there thinking, “I want to see this again” …and the movie wasn’t even over yet!

It’s every bit as good as the hype says it is. There’s so much action and detail that your eyes can hardly take it all in. Thankfully, the story maintains a narrow focus on just a handful of characters, which allows you to absorb more of the chaos onscreen without losing track of what’s going on. Be aware that not all questions are answered. Actually, very little detail is given regarding the aliens, their culture, their history, how or why they came to be stranded on Earth, etc. Just enough tantalizing detail is given to set up the story and let ‘er rip.

District 9 has a runtime just shy of two hours. It’s well-paced, suspenseful and exciting. It also leaves the door WIDE open for the inevitable sequel, District 10…which they absolutely can’t make fast enough for my tastes. It’s that good.

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