District 9

Life must have seemed pretty good for South African director Blomkamp. After catching the eye of Oscar winning director Peter Jackson, he was snapped up to make a film adaptation of Xbox sci-fi game Halo, which is one of the best selling and most played games on the current generation of consoles.

Then, the project hit the skids and in true Hollywood fashion went from a potential box office behemoth into a merely a dream living in the head of the few directly involved with the project. The dream of his first feature being a large budget sci-fi disappeared. But, in another twist which could be fitting of any rags to reaches film industry tale, Jackson noticed a short that Blomkamp had made in his native South Africa. It was a tale of apartheid, but not between races of humans, but between humans and aliens. After a discussion, it was agreed to write and develop this concept as a feature.

The resulting film is District 9, the title referring to the refugee camp where the aliens are based. It starts in a documentary style following an employee of MNU, the company charged with controlling the extraterrestrials by the South African government. Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley) is a pen pushing, snivelling  brown nose, hosting the “documentary” that explains the area of District 9 and the fact that he has been chosen to head a team to get the aliens to sign over their slums, in order to move them to a newly built District 10 outside of the city limits of Johannesburg. Following the company line, he sneers and looks down on the visitors, or “prawns” as they are called in a derogatory fashion.

While doing his duty, Wikus has an accident that starts to transform him from a human to a “prawn”. The transition is slow, with parts of his body morphing and shifting (in often graphic fashion). For many reasons, he becomes extremely useful to his old employers and he is detained for experimentation. Making an escape, he is vilified as a threat to national security and is forced to head to only place where he feels he will be safe, District 9. Befriending one of his previous foes, he discovers there may be a solution, but it will take drastic action.

From start to finish the film juggles tones, from mockumentary, sci-fi, political satire and action, via lighter moments of comic relief (some of the moments between Wikus and the alien referred to as “Christopher” as very reminiscent of the buddy/odd couple movies). The aliens themselves are beautifully realised in CGI. As far as a use of computer graphics that feels real and tangible, it is some of the finest work consigned to film. Which is particularly amazing when the relatively miniscule budget of around $30m is taken into consideration.

This is a fantastically made film that adds a genuine slice of originality into the sci-fi genre (and with Moon also currently in cinemas it seems great films from this area are seeing a resurgence). The only thing that stops this movie from gaining a full five stars is that to pack everything into its running time it can become relentless. With such graphically depicted violence in the war scenes it could become wearisome and the sheer volume of gritty, bloody shooting and limb loss actually took away from some well-orchestrated action scenes. One thing is for sure – on this display, it Blomkamp stays attached, it may not be that long before Halo finds itself with full studio support.

Official Site
District 9 at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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