A brilliant central concept and excellent, perhaps revolutionary, use of computer-generated effects bolsters director Neill Blomkamp’s exciting, provocative District 9.
The South African filmmaker was initially pegged to direct a big-screen adaptation of the video game series Halo; when that fell through, he was given $30 million by producer Peter Jackson for a project of his choosing. He delivered a feature-length adaptation of his short film Alive in Joburg.
That short is pretty much perfect in conveying its core idea: aliens have landed on Earth, above Johannesburg, South Africa, to be precise, and they’re here to stay.
Instead of the usual alien encounters we see in film, Blomkamp douses this one with a dose of reality: no attempt is made to understand or come to terms with the alien race – they live in segregation in the slums of Johannesburg, feared and opposed, clashing with locals and law enforcement in makeshift riots. The setting immediately recalls the apartheid era in South Africa.
District 9 takes this premise and runs with it. The title is a reference to District 6, Cape Town, a residential area that was destroyed after tens of thousands of (mostly black) residents were forcibly relocated by the apartheid regime.
In the film, it’s twenty years after the aliens have landed; fear of this strange race and conflict between them and their neighbors (white and black) necessitates an eviction: the sizable alien population is to be relocated from their inner city to a camp hundreds of kilometers away. Early scenes showcase our hero, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), serving the eviction papers.
These early scenes in District 9 are the best, but you can only take this premise so far in a mainstream feature before a plot has to interject. The plot here – along with some occasionally crude writing – is the one real downside to the film, and the only thing keeping it from becoming a classic.
In the course of the eviction, handled by munitions corporation Multi-National United (MNU), van der Merwe comes into contact with a strange device which he confiscates. But not before it sprays a liquid in his face that will slowly transform him into one of the aliens. Once the transformation begins to take place, we know exactly where District 9 is headed: van der Merwe will be ostracized by the humans, take refuge in District 9, and come to an understanding with the aliens.
The final act, as van der Merwe and an alien friend try to recover the liquid (which will power the mothership and allow for a return home) devolves into routine actioner territory. Not that the action scenes are bad; they’re expertly executed, even exhilarating.
But it’s the style of District 9 that becomes the film’s biggest asset. Everything is handled as a faux-documentary, with footage from handheld cameras, news stations, CCTV monitors and brief talking-head interludes. This style has been overused in recent years as filmmakers attempt to forcibly inject realism into features, but it’s executed brilliantly here, for one main reason: to compensate for the abundance of CGI in the film.
All the aliens – and a lot of other aspects of the film – are completely CGI creations, and the CGI, while quite good, isn’t any closer to fooling us. What does fool us is the style: with the handheld camerawork, rapid editing, and slum background (the aliens may be ugly, but District 9 is even uglier) we don’t have the ability to analyze and pick apart the digital work the way we might in, say, the recent Star Wars films.
This creates computer-generated work that we more or less accept without thinking twice; we know it isn’t real, but we’re not all that bothered about it. To top it off, the animation style seems to mimic animatronics and stop-motion work rather than the too-fluid CGI that has plagued many recent productions; my favorite piece of work is an alien suit that pays homage to Phil Tippet’s stop-motion work on ED 209 in Robocop.
Also remarkable: a CGI creature that we actually care about. The 2nd lead here is the alien that befriends van der Merwe, and he’s the one likable character in the film.
Minor complaints: van der Merwe’s cartoonish nature results in a rather unsympathetic character whose arc never really pays off (though Copley, an unprofessional actor, is excellent in the role). There’s also a very slight air of passive racism towards the Nigerian characters in the film.
Still, it’s nothing short of amazing that all this was accomplished with $30 million. With a fraction of the budget, Blomkamp has bested the digital work in most Hollywood blockbusters.