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DISTRICT 9 (2009) ****1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on August 14th, 2009
Posted on August 14th, 2009


There’s a reason why you haven’t heard the name of “District 9” director, Neill Blomkamp.  An accomplished special effects wiz, “D-9” marks his first feature-length movie as a director.  Based on his short film “Alive in Joburg,” Blomkamp received some high-ranking confidence from Producer/Director Peter Jackson who helped him get “D-9” off the ground with a meager budget of $30 million.  Despite the relatively cheap price tag, Blomkamp has created one of the most original and visually stunning science fiction films I’ve seen in the past decade. 

In 1982, an alien mothership appears over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa.  Stranded with no power source to return home, the insectoid “prawns” form a shanty town in the ghetto of District 9.  These aimless “drones,” despite their advanced technological skills, act brutish and violent.  They lack the intellect and organization that their absent “leader” caste supposedly provides for their race.  The government and local citizens soon regard them as unwanted pests and strictly regulate their movements. 

27 years later, the government commissions the private corporation Multi-National United (MNU) and their mercenaries to evict the 1 million + aliens from District 9 and relocate them to an internment camp outside of the city.  Sniveling MNU bureaucrat Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is chosen to lead the eviction squads.  He callously conducts raids, orders the shooting of resistors and oversees the destruction of alien eggs.  When he accidentally becomes infected by an alien bio weapon, his own company experiments on him and plans his dissection, prompting his escape to the only safe haven… District 9.  Desperate and frightened, he reluctantly becomes involved with the opposing side of the alien struggle.

The film follows no traditional cinematic formula.  It begins as a mockumentary about the D-9 evictions with Merwe as the subject.  Once he becomes infected, the point of view shifts back and forth between news footage of the incident and a third person narrative that follows Merwe as he dodges mercenaries and hides amongst the aliens. 

First-time actor Sharlto Copley gives a harried and largely unsympathetic performance.  You’ll hate his character for most of the story, especially during the moments that expose him as a ruthless coward.  Motivated strictly by desperation, he only acts heroically after realizing he has nothing left to lose and it takes him most of the film to reach that point.  Surprisingly enough, the best acting comes from a computer-generated effect.  The alien known as “Christopher,” the only true hero of the film, shows emotions ranging from sadness to anger, mostly through his expressive eyes. 

A thinly-veiled allegory for the South African apartheid, “District 9” won’t win over any tourists thinking about visiting Johannesburg.  The country/city is portrayed as a lawless slum, full of violence, gangs and fascist authority.  None of the humans in the film, including the lead character, have any remorse for the aliens. They disregard them as stray animals, make jokes while executing defenseless innocents and refer to the explosions of alien eggs burned by flamethrowers as “popcorn.”  I would say the film was a grim assessment of humans in general if it weren’t for the shameful recent history of the country in which it takes place.  Outrage for what the humans are doing to the aliens is a natural, proper response and I’m a little disappointed they didn’t include a few sympathetic humans into the story.

There’s no shortage of action, especially in the second half.  Alien weapons vs. human mercenaries make for some messy, gory battles.  Blomkamp’s eye for sci-fi action and special effects, proves that video games are the biggest influence on his style.  The action sequences involving alien weapons feels like a live-action version of every popular sci-fi shooting videogame in the past 15 years.  I mean that as a compliment.  It’s exciting and visually impressive on a level that bigger-budgeted films usually fail to achieve.  In fact, a videogame version of “D-9” better be in the works.  I’d be disappointed if someone dropped the ball on that obvious marketing opportunity. 

“District 9” also sets itself up for a sequel.  A well-constructed ending gives the story a 3 year waiting period for the next sequence of events to unfold.  If “District 10” does happen (and I’m pretty sure that’ll be the title), expect a larger-scale film with a far more generous budget. 

If the film fails, its unfamiliar style, the difficult-to-understand South African accents and lack of star power will absorb the blame.  Personally I found the experience refreshing and I hope audiences appreciate its ingenuity.  If they do, I predict “District 9” will become the sleeper hit of the year and at the very least, a sci-fi cult phenomenon.  Blomkamp’s name has been attached to a possible movie adaptation of the blockbuster “Halo” videogame franchise.  He even made an impressive short film/concept reel to prove he could pull it off.  Spielberg now owns the movie rights to “Halo” and I hope he has his eyes open.  Blomkamp is without a doubt the right man for the job. 

4 and ½ out of 5 stars

The “Alive in Joburg” short film that “D-9” was based on…

Blomkamp’s impressive “Halo” movie concept footage…

Finally a “District 9” trailer (please ignore the annoying intro to the video)…

-C

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