A film review by Craig J. Koban August 18, 2009

Rank:  #6


2009, R, 113 mins.


Wikus: Sharlto Copley / Christopher (voice): Jason Cope / Koobus Venter: David James / Tania: Vanessa Haywood / Fundiswa Mhlanga: Mandla Gaduka / Thomas: Kenneth Nkosi

Directed by Neill Blomkamp / Written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

DISTRICT 9 is science fiction/horror film of freakish novelty and fearless, unhinged ambition.  More importantly, it does what all great sci-fi films of the past used to do before they denigrated into mindless CGI excess and painfully routine action: it uses its exotic and otherworldly storylines to comment on very tangible human themes.  And when it does not engage in thoughtful, frequently irreverent, and sharp social-political satire, DISTRICT 9 is a feverously thrilling and pulse pounding action spectacle.  

What it does better than just about any other film of this lackluster summer thus far is to be such a complete blockbuster: It thanklessly and skillfully morphs cutting edge visual effects and action, brilliantly executed production values, witty social commentary, tremendously intense performances by unknowns, and an fiendishly clever script that turns the whole alien invasion genre upside down.  We have seen countless sci-fi films in the mould of DISTRICT 9, but this one audaciously breathes much needed life into it. 

This needs to be emphasized: the film was made for $30 million.  No fooling: $30 million.  By comparisons, the very recent dramedy FUNNY PEOPLE cost over twice as much.  DISTRICT 9 is a virtuoso exercise in making a film look as large scale and epic as films costing sometimes triple or quadruple its budget.  This is a stunning testament to its rookie director, the South African-born and Canadian-residing (Canucks rejoice!) writer/director Neill Blomkamp, and its one of the more auspicious debuts in many a moon.  A graduate of Vancouver Film School’s 3D animation and Visual Effects Program in 1998, Blomkamp showcases a deft mastery of blending computer trickery (which for once does not lend needless attention to itself) with nimble and cagey storytelling that has an emotional heartbeat.  There is an invigoratingly fresh and inventive energy from this 30-year-old and his creative passion shows from the opening frame.  For a directorial greenhorn, he has the “goods” of creative greats already in the twilight of their careers.  Blomkamp just may be another James Cameron waiting in the wings, especially for the way he commands his film’s effects-heavy cache with swift and sure footed storytelling and themes that resonate.  

The premise of the film – an extension of a short film called ALIVE IN JOBURG that Blomkamp participated in making – is a radical departure from the alien invasion genre.  Yes, many of the staple elements of many other past films are here in abundance (sci-fi/horror flicks as far ranging as CLOVERFIELD to INDEPENDENCE DAY to THE FLY to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS all have reverberations in DISTRICT 9), but it’s how Blomkamp and his co-writer - another intrepidly resourceful Canadian, Terri Tatchell - handle the familiar material.   DISTRICT 9 uses a skilful weave of different filmmaking disciplines to tell its overall story: it combines a faux-documentary aesthetic with wonderfully creative fake news footage (which looks creepily real) with interview bits from a slew of fictitious journalists and professionals commenting on the story.  That, and when the film needs a strong dosage of fanboy-gasmic adrenaline, Blomkamp and company crank up their innovative gears into overdrive and deliver action sequences of assured and immediate power.  DISTRICT 9 goes on a very short list of escapist spectacles that are generous to viewers: it confidently and boldly goes against the creative grain in telling what could have been a dime-a-dozen aliens versus humanity scare fest and instead shows the events from a whole new prerogative.  

Here’s the wickedly nifty premise: DISTRICT 9 begins a few decades in an alternate-reality-past where a gigantic, ID4-esque alien mother ship hovers over Johannesburg (and fiiiinnnallly not over the same old obligatory cities from too many other alien films, like L.A., New York, Washington, etc.).  During the opening third of the film – shot with a fly-on-the-wall spontaneity of a documentary conjoining talking head interviews with hand-held archival “footage” – we learn that this strange vessel reached Johannesburg after running out of fuel.  Problem: the “visitors” refused to come out…and that’s when us annoyingly inquisitive humans went into action and decided to breach the ship’s hull to get a look. We just can't keep our noses out of places where they don't belong. 

What we found in the ship were aliens all right, and grotesquely vile and ugly ones at that: the E.T’s in question are hard- shelled, bipedal, have a language comprised of cricket-like noises, and have an overall look of a walking insect mixed with the PREDATOR alien.  They are so repulsive to humans that they very quickly – and cruelly – label them as “prawns.”  The new visitors to Earth have bigger problems than bigotry: their enormous saucer-like spaceship can’t make it back to the cosmos because of its lack of a very special fuel (not indigenous to earth) that is required to blast off.  As a result, the aliens become ghettoized and live in shantytown slums that can easily be described as concentration camps.  They remain segregated, but ruled over, by humans, who sometimes show up for routine inspections of their homes and sometimes to provide food for them.  Cat food is, for some odd reason, the prawns’ favorite dish. 

The deepening mistrust and hatred between prawns and humans reaches a climax when a governmental decision is made to transfer the aliens from their current ghettos to an even more insufficient and smaller location.  This divisive move is spearheaded by a government controlled company known as MNU (Multinational United) and they in turn use a low leveled, smarmy, socially unskilled, and book wormy enforcer named Wikus (Sharlto Copley, more on him soon) that got his job mostly out of the fact that his wife’s dad heads up MNU.  During the film’s opening section - the film's most compelling - we see this sniveling and cowardly little weasel gleefully power trip his way through the alien ghetto while taunting, intimidating, and abusing the rights of the alien settlers.  In one vicious little moment, he willfully ignites a shack filled with alien fetuses and then shockingly smirks at the camera and laughs when he relates how the burning sounds of the babies sounds like popcorn popping.  In short: this guy is the worst type of duplicitous, media-hungry, and self-aggrandizing political a-hole. 

The film’s setup of both the Wikus character and the overall alien situation is crucial for the payoff of what is to come, and I certainly will not dream of spoiling the last sections of the film for you.  Let’s just say that his fact-finding expedition in the ghetto leads to his hospitalization, which in turn leads to even more nightmarish horrors for the political stooge.  As a result, Wikus eventually becomes – through a series of events – one of the most feared and wanted men on the planet which leads to his somewhat aggrieved teaming-up with the aliens that he once humiliated and accosted in order to save his life.  All of this culminates in a climatic final 30 minutes that’s about as rousing and thrilling as it could get, where Blomkamp and company gives us the stuff of movie geekdom dreams: giant armored mechanized robots, humans and aliens being ripped to shreds by utterly devastating alien hardware, thrilling cross-city chases…I could go on and on. 

The final and inescapably rousing final action sequence is a superlative exhibition of exquisite pacing, magnificently orchestrated visual effects, and a tremendously exciting bit of splatter house visceral intrigue.   The CGI effects, depicting the aliens themselves, are remarkably well integrated (thanks in part to the geniuses at Vancouver’s Imagine Engine and further to Weta Digital, who were multiple Oscar winners for THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy): you rarely see the seams or wires of the visual effects magicians here.  Perhaps ever more visually compelling is how extraordinarily Blomkamp and his cinematographer, Trent Opaloch, fuses so many stylistic disciplines together: The mock-news footage, the documentary archival footage, that subtly distressed and jilted “it’s-like-you-were-there” camera work, the harsh, slightly overexposed lighting scheme that they give to make the ghetto town of Johannesburg come breathlessly alive…all of this comes miraculous together to form a cohesive whole, which only further allows our investment that the events of the film are actually occurring.  This is arguably the first alien invasion film that gives us a plausible reality as to what it would be like with a clash between humans and non-human visitors. 

Even the alien creatures themselves seem strikingly original as entities in the film.  How many times have we seen malevolent monsters from other planets that were remorseless, salivating, humanity-hungry killing machines?  Huge props need to be giving for DISTRICT 9 for how it at least places an emphasis on developing these creatures as characters: They are certainly horrendously unattractive, but they are also atypically sympathetic figures in the story.  We also see the typically overlooked domesticity of this alien culture (they have bickering children), their fears, the psychological motivation for their intense distrust of humans, and ultimately their pains of being inhumanly discriminated and mistreated by earth in general.  How many alien/monster films have ever made you root against humanity? 

This, of course, brings me to the real heart of the film, which is in its effectiveness with how it acts as a parable for some very familiar and relatable real-world social ills.  The larger allegorical element of Apartheid is obviously not subtle in the film...nor should it have been any other way.  Clearly, the treatment of the aliens by the humans brings up some undeniable resonations with the no-defunct apartheid struggle of racial segregation in Africa, not to mention that the ways humanity alienates and wages media-infused fear campaigns against those we know very little about has some echoes to even more recent headlines.  DISTRICT 9, in the finest instances of the great sci-fi classics of the past, uses its exotic and extraterrestrial storyline to comment on certain universal truths that some straightforward dramas often have trouble dealing with. 

One last accolade needs to be bestowed here, and that is squarely on the only human character in the film that maintains our constant investment.  Sharlto Copley plays Wikus in a phenomenally assured performance: before appearing in the film he never acted professionally before and largely was a figure working on producing, directing and visual effects work.  To see this virginal acting talent take the role of Copley and morph him from an introverted, meek minded, and fairly detestable creep and into a fire and brimstone action hero with the gnarly, teeth-clenched intensity of a Christian Bale is one of DISTRICT 9’s masterful coups.  For someone with such a limited acting background, Copley’s miraculously grounded and unnerving performance is a pure revelation.    

Peter Jackson has an Executive Producer credit for DISTRICT 9, which seems more like a marketing tool than anything else (which proved to be inspired alongside the film’s ingeniously conceived viral campaign on the Internet which has made this film the must-see event of the late summer).  Hopefully, Jackson’s enormous shadow will not overwhelm the real mastermind behind DISTRICT 9: Neill Blomkamp makes a serious play here for the sci-fi fraternity of elite myth makers by forging a scathing parable and sometimes darkly funny social satire within the outward veneer of a action thriller/alien invasion blockbuster…and all for a paltry budget that would barely provide catering on TRANSFORMERS 2.  The summer of 2009, in my humble estimation, has been one beset by mediocrities and failures, some of which were spearheaded by grossly indulgent budgets and even more so by the repellently inflated egos of the makers behind them.  Yet, held brazenly and assertively together by a measly, penny-pinching budget and an exultant, almost rebelliously imaginative bluster, DISTRICT 9 emerges as the most contemplative, inspired, exciting, and ingeniously assembled summer blockbuster in a long time.    

To take a page of the hyperactive and fanatical geekdom vernacular: This film kicks you in the ass with all levels and manners of pure awesomeness.  

And, yup, it makes ya think, too.

  H O M E