Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
In many respects District 9 is a conundrum. More than a week after seeing it I'm still not sure just what to make of this film. This is not your typical August-release action movie. It doesn't belong here. I can see why it was released in August – an unknown, unproven director (Neill Blomkamp), a shoe-string (for an action movie) $30 million budget, a cast of unknown (and foreign!) actors, an R rating – this could easily make production executives wary to release it earlier alongside Star Trek or Transformers 2. And District 9 certainly stands out among the likes of toy-inspired commandos and used car salesmen. Time will tell if that peculiarity will serve it well or not. I hope it is the former, because District 9 is a fantastic film deserving of success.
District 9 starts in a documentary style with interviews conducted well after the events of the film. It is revealed that 28 years prior an alien spacecraft entered the Earth's atmosphere and hovered for months over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. When humans finally breached the ship, what they found were malnourished and near-dead aliens. Believed to be refugees and the last survivors of their species, the aliens were moved from the ship to a temporary camp in the slums of Johannesburg called District 9. District 9 soon became a permanent settlement for the aliens, and at the film's start custodial duties have passed from the UN/South African government to the private security corporation Multi-National United (MNU), which is about to carry out a forced eviction and relocation of the aliens from District 9 to a new camp more than 200 miles outside of Johannesburg. It falls to bureaucrat and middle-management schlub Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to lead the team tasked with carrying out a bit of legal shenanigans – serving eviction papers to each of the aliens.
With that setup, if I wanted to be lazy I could simply describe District 9 as a mash-up of Alien Nation and the plot of just about any FPS video game shot in the style of the reality television series Cops. I could do that, but it would be a gross oversimplification. District 9 is more than the sum of its parts.
But let's talk about those parts. I was aware going in that District 9 only had a budget of $30 million, and that number kept popping up in my mind as I watched incredible special effects that looked like they belonged in a film with a budget ten times that amount. Whereas the various Autobots and Decepticons of Transformers 2 look like computer-generated figures superimposed on real backdrops, the aliens of District 9, while also being the product of CGI, seem to possess more weight and appear to more seamlessly blend into real world surroundings and interact with flesh and blood actors.
The quality of the special effects aren't the only surprise in District 9. I mentioned a similarity of plot with the film Alien Nation. Though Alien Nation also centered on a limited population of aliens becoming stranded on Earth, those humanoid (in the best tradition of Star Trek alien design) mostly integrated into the human society of Los Angeles. The social commentary on race relations in America in that film and subsequent, short-lived television series spin-off was pretty tame. By contrast, Blomkamp's own social commentary on his native country's history of Apartheid (it may never be explained why the alien ship settles over Johannesburg, but it becomes obvious to the viewer very quickly) is brutal, unrelenting, and wholly unexpected.
This makes District 9 hard to watch for much of the running time, which of course is by design. When there's hardly a single sympathetic human character in the entire movie, and the lead (Wikus Van De Merwe) begins the film as an outright despicable protagonist, you can't help but sympathize with the aliens, or "prawns" as they are disdainfully called throughout the film. Wikus does make a significant arc through the duration of the film, yet his status as a "hero" is a matter of debate both in and out of the film. I can't think of a summer action movie with a "hero" this conflicted. But one more traditional than Wikus just wouldn't work in the story Blomkamp is telling. Whether or not audiences will understand that, and whether or not they accept Wikus by the film's end may largely determine how they judge this film. For me his flawed nature and questionable motives only benefit District 9.
Blomkamp's visual style, shooting the first half or so of the film in a documentary/Cinéma vérité style, works incredibly well and to liken it to Cops feels like something of an insult, IMHO. It isn't all shaky, hand-held camera shots. Blomkamp blends interview clips, security camera footage, and cuts to local news coverage of the events to create a convincing sense of realism. When Blomkamp switches to a more traditional film style throughout the latter half (mostly for practical reasons, I imagine), the transition is seamless and feels like a natural choice.
I'm convinced that under different circumstances District 9 couldn't have been made and survive in its present form. Studios would have demanded an American city setting, or more established actors, or a PG-13 rating, or less of all that social commentary that has viewers feeling so uncomfortable. It would have been watered down and palatable and safe. In a word, horrible. In that respect, I'm happy that the Halo film Blomkamp and Jackson were committed to failed. If District 9 as it exists in its current form premiering in theaters across the country today is the result of the breakdown of a Halo movie, I considering it a very fortuitous development.