In Brief: Brilliantly fascinating, if flawed.
In Detail: Most of what I’ve seen written about District 9 is about its analogous resemblance to the struggles of apartheid. It’s been explored in depth, and doesn’t need to be done here. Instead, I’m just going to review it as a piece of cinema, attempting to leave aside the looming moral issues which accompany it. However, that’s easier said and done. District 9 is a sci-fi action film on the surface, but very much a tale of the darkness of humanity underneath. It is – you might say – a blockbuster with a heart.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the set-up is simple. Alien spacecraft appears of Johannesburg. Said ship does nothing. Mankind drills into it, finding an emaciated species of alien. Due to worldwide pressure, South Africa decides to house all of these aliens – or ‘prawns’, due to their resemblance to the popular seafood – in an area known as District 9. Whether it’s due to their insectoid appearance, or the obvious communication barrier (although the aliens and humans in the film can by this stage understand one another), District 9 becomes a slum filled with black market violence and Nigerian scammers. After twenty years, the South African government decide to segregate the aliens further, moving them out of Johannesburg to a ‘concentration camp’ some 200km away. Wikus van de Merwe is placed in charge of overseeing this eviction, but in the course of the film becomes infected by a liquid fuel which begins to alter his DNA, turning him into one of the aliens. Cue all sorts of problems and catastrophes.
As a sci-fi flick, this is surprisingly deep. Neill Blomkamp’s decision to set the story in South Africa rather than the United States – and to cast a relative unknown in the pivotal lead role – helps to establish District 9 as something other than your run-of-the-mill summer action movie. Sharlto Copely’s performance is admirable, believable and his character of Wikus van de Merwe is written in a delightfully realistic fashion considering the rather fantastical predicament in which he finds himself. His relationship with Christoper – the friendly alien, for want of a better phrase – is wonderfully compelling. It is a testament to the quality of the film’s CGI that the aliens’ effect works hold up so well. In fact, they’re outstanding. In some scenes, the aliens are as photorealistic as any VFX I have ever laid eyes upon. When Christoper is on the MNU bus at the end of the film, looking between the windows, he simply looks real. So many other blockbusters spend millions on huge explosions and action sequences, and while some of these appear here, the real effort has been put in the right place: the heart of the story, and making sure the viewer stays there.
Perhaps why District 9 succeeds in this respect so dramatically is because unlike other flicks such as Independence Day, mankind is not portrayed as some utopia worth protecting. In fact, they’re portrayed on an equal if not lower plane than the aliens themselves. The movie latches on to human bigotry and xenophobia, and uses them to great effect. There is no obligatory human relationship the viewer must endure, no heroic speeches or holier-than-thou saviour: District 9 is about an average man – closer to a geek than a hero; caught between a eerily familiar, xenophobic human society, and the frightened, intimidated aliens it seeks to repress. Not sounding quite so much like Independence Day now, eh?
Peter Jackson’s production on the film is exquisite. It’s beautifully edited with magnificent visuals and particularly sound editing. District 9 itself feels alive; real. The aliens themselves are so frighteningly realistic, there is actually a far lesser suspension of disbelief than is found in most science fiction movies. Instead, I found myself viewing with the scrutiny of someone watching a real documentary than an imaginary world. That’s not, I think, a consequence of some creative failing, but rather a testament to the quality of the world Blomkamp and Jackson have created. My God – the alien control panels alone are worth the admission price. They feel like an iMac circa 2050. Additionally, the subtlety of the alien mothership floating above the city is a tremendous visual spectacle – one handled very well. It’s that very in-fashion approach of non-intrusive CGI achieved through hand-held camera work that allows the Mothership to become as much a character in the story as the characters themselves. The mothership’s technological majesty a firm reminder throughout the film that the repression in the slums below it may not go unpunished.
The aliens themselves are genuinely fantastic. The diversity is subtle yet clear at all times, as their colours and clothes all differ and are very nicely crafted. What movies five years ago would have dreamed of, or certainly made a big meal out of, District 9 does for fun here. The CGI aliens’ interactions with the filmed environment around them is so natural and fluid that you barely notice it occur. The way they open doors ‘feels’ one-hundred percent right. When they throw something – or someone, as the case may be – you don’t sit there thinking "Wow, that’s clever CGI." The Cloverfield-style camera work, coupled with the tremendous visual work, means that instead you sit there thinking "Wow, that alien just threw that fella into that rickety wall." You don’t even treat it as CGI anymore. I’ve waited a long time for a movie to achieve that. District 9 succeeds. It also creates arguably my favourite CGI character since Gollum. Christopher is – and don’t ask me how, because he certainly doesn’t have Gollum’s facial expressions – a remarkably connective character. You feel for him – you understand how he feels, and you feel like he is, in fact, more human than most of the human characters. That’s another remarkable achievement, for a character whose mouth comprises of slithery tendrils, and communicates solely in garbled clicks. Well done, writers.
The film is not, however, without flaws. One of the most obvious ones that leaps to mind is the stubborn willingness to stick the news footage that runs through the film. This is rather well crafted at the beginning, but due to a combination of weak monologues from the newsreaders, and the novelty simply wearing off, by the end of the movie these news-clips feel more like they’re breaking the flow of the movie, rather than helping create it. I do appreciate the documentary style in which portions of the movie are filmed. They’re a very effective and realistic mechanism for scene-setting at the start; they add emotional weight through the interviews with Wikus van de Merwe’s relatives; and the hand-held camera style (of which I know many are not a fan, but I personally am) helps create slick action sequences and a realistic tone to the cinematography. The news sequences towards the end though feel contrived and unrealistic, and I felt weakened the concluding sequence of the movie.
The alien command ship which resurfaces towards the end too looked frustratingly like Joss Whedon’s Serenity. In fact, on the HUD in the ship itself, the two were barely distinguishable in terms of structure. Okay, I’m being a sci-fi pedant here, but it did take me out of the realism of the movie slightly. On an additional VFX note, the opening sequence with the many aliens on the ship seemed a little weak, but I’m happy to say the quality of the effects only got better from there on in. Maybe they sacrificed quality on the alien models for render-time purposes, who knows?
I also felt a bit let-down by the Transformers-style action sequence at the end. Cool though it was, it had a slight feeling of gratuity in places. They redeemed it slightly with Wikus actually getting beaten slowly, but the machines leaps over the slum huts felt a little ‘over-the-top’. The movie had maintained a very strong emotional heart in Wikus van de Merwe’s character throughout, and suddenly it felt a bit PS3-gamey, with robots vs. soldiers. But alas, it’s a minor criticism.
I also questioned whether District 9 was inhabited solely by 2 million aliens, and a handful of Nigerian weapons traders. A few more nationalities (perhaps one less clichÃ©d than this fast-growing ‘all Nigerians send you spam emails’ stereotype) may have helped the environment seem even more believable, but this is being nit-picky. As I said before, the quality of the movie left me critiquing useless little things in my mind, as the core of the movie was so tremendously solid.
On one final critical note, what on earth was that camera-work about as the MNU soliders stormed the lab with Wikus and Christopher? Yes, you know the one I mean. The shots where it looked like the troops were sailing in on skateboards, since the camera was reverse-fixed to the end of their guns. I generally thought the camera work was tremendous, but this was laughably bad.
Overall, it’s definitely something I’d want to see again, and certainly worth a buy on Blu-Ray. The sequel the movie set-up so nicely towards the end might not actually be woeful. The story feels like it needs to be continued. Not can be continued, but needs to be so. That’s a far better reason to do a follow-up than "It sold a lot of DVDs so let’s make up a way to do another one". It’s a wonderfully presented movie, which does have its flaws which prevent it from quite achieving masterpiece status. It does all the basics wonderfully well, and avoids a great many traps, but can’t quite make it over that final hurdle in my mind: that last fence which would have heralded true cinematic greatness.
That said, I can’t recall the last film that managed to do that. Maybe I’m too harsh.
Does an A- grade sound about right to you?
You tell me. Leave your own thoughts below.