Sony // 2009 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // December 22nd, 2009
You are not welcome here.
Before it hit theaters, District 9 crept into the public's peripheral vision through a smart and prolific viral ad campaign. Billboards, posters, and bus signs everywhere labeled things "for human use only." The first trailer for the film didn't involve quick clips of explosions or a gravel-voiced narrator; it was instead an interrogation video with the alien's face blurred and subtitles telling us he was begging to go home.
This mixture of otherworldly imagery and visceral xenophobia isn't just a marketing ploy, it's the underlying theme of the film. That, and alien blastin'.
20 years ago, an alien spaceship, filled with malnourished, leaderless, insect-like creatures, came to a halt above the South African city of Johannesburg. For the past two decades, these aliens (referred to derogatorily as "prawns") have been living in a slum called District 9, run by a global weapons manufacturer called MNU.
MNU's goal is to be able to tap into the prawns' alien weaponry and adapt it for human use. In the meantime, the entire process has turned into a humanitarian nightmare with South Africans rioting in the streets, Nigerians running gangs and drugs through D9, and prejudice and segregation overwhelming everything.
In order for MNU to maintain peace and stability in the region, they begin a program to move the aliens to a new settlement. Leading the eviction effort is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a freshly promoted bureaucrat more than eager to take on the task.
In Hollywood, aliens tend to be of two standard varieties: aliens who like us (E.T., Alf, Mork); and aliens who want to kill us (the rest). These are the two pillars, generally speaking, of man's interaction with aliens in Hollywood. District 9 defines a third type of space being: the impoverished, marginalized, lower class alien.
District 9 is an original science fiction idea, at least as far as blockbuster filmmaking is concerned. It's not based on some old paperback, and it's not a sequel or a remake. It's a unique and honest vision from a fresh, new director. It's a movie where the invaders are pathetic and hated, where the true enemy is humanity. And as if the incredible story weren't enough, the film is presented in an exceedingly novel style that blends documentary and improvisation with old-fashioned Hollywood action set pieces.
District 9 isn't necessarily a message movie, but just about every sci-fi story contains an underlying thread of socio-political commentary. This film is about South African apartheid, something director Neill Blomkamp experienced firsthand growing up. The aliens are segregated, buried in a heap of bureaucracy, and now they're being forced into a refugee camp.
That's where Wikus Van De Merwe comes in. He's a newly promoted MNU bureaucrat charged with leading the operation to evict every last prawn in D9. Wikus is a jittery, inappropriately proud bloke with a beautiful wife and a promising career. Despite his mugging for the film crew following him around on the first day of eviction, Wikus is an extremely likable character. His personality is a mix of naive determination and straight-laced dedication, and newcomer Sharlto Copley does an absolutely astounding job portraying him. Copley's use of improvisation and casual glances towards the camera give Wikus a believability a screenwriter could only hope to mimic. His performance is Oscar-worthy.
Part of the reason Copley's performance is so convincing is that Wikus changes as a character -- both literally and figuratively. After spending the first act of the film doddering around D9 with his underling-in-training and a private military escort, Wikus comes across a prawn named Christopher Johnson. Clearly Christopher is smarter than the rest and immediately questions the legality of his eviction notice. Wikus ends up searching his shack, and discovers a chemical vial. Not long after, Wikus comes down with a case of the prawns. His grotesque transformation happens rapidly, and throws his life into chaos.
In creating the world of District 9, Blomkamp ups the realism by blending techniques from cinéma vérité, "found" footage, and traditional Hollywood blockbusters. The camera is constantly, and seamlessly, shifting between points of view like Thomas (the name of the cameraman assigned to Wikus), security camera footage, and structured action shots with traditional modes of editing and cinematography. At first the difference between the two can seem jarring, but as the film progresses they naturally meld together to form a new experience that's not quite a documentary and not quite the next James Cameron alien flick. It also helps that the film transitions from smart and funny social commentary to all-out action-fest by the end of the second act.
One issue many alien movies wrestle with, especially in the past fifteen years, is the believability of digital effects when paired with human actors. It's not such an issue when aliens show up on screen just to get obliterated by some merc's shotgun, but when they need to be believable, relatable characters it's important they look real. Amazingly, District 9 accomplishes this with a relatively small budget. The prawns were almost entirely CGI, but because of the digital effect team's smart use of lighting and camera work, they come across as living beings on film. The same goes for the mech suit and the weaponry on display in the film's final battle (which seems to last a solid 30 minutes). This humble $30 million dollar movie dominates larger fare like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds (the remakes) by downplaying the special effects and focusing on story and style. Every aspect of this film gels to create a satisfying and unique whole.
The effects in District 9 translate well to the small screen thanks to a great audio/video presentation. The high contrast lighting is as sharp as can be, and the various video formats all look good in standard def. The audio is even better, with a great mix of sound effects and dialogue. The sound design for the aliens, weaponry, and even the space ship is fantastic; the soundtrack, while fairly minimal, kicks into gear the second the action shows up.
The two-disc release comes with a great set of extras, although the best supplements reside on the feature disc.
Along with the film, the first disc contains over 25 minutes of deleted scenes. You'll see a couple MNU characters and interviewees that were completely cut from the film, along with some more interaction between Wikus and the prawns on his first day in the field. There's even a strange 1980s-era instructional video about alien reproduction. With all of the improvisation in the film, there were bound to be a ton of deleted scenes. What's here is a lot of fun, but, sadly, the footage from the film's first trailer is nowhere to be found.
Also on the first disc is the three-part documentary, The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log, which runs about 35 minutes. It's a great overview on the making of the film, and features interviews with plenty of cast and crew. There's also a thorough commentary track with Blomkamp. He talks at length about his experiences making the movie and growing up in South Africa, as well as the movie's various messages and levels of satire. It's a very engaging commentary track, to say the least.
The second disc features a handful of in-depth behind-the-scenes featurettes, each running between 10 and 13 minutes. Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus chronicles the practical make-up effects used on Wikus at the various stages of his mutation. Innovation: Acting and Improvisation shows you how screenwriters Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell devised the screenplay and gave actors room to improvise dialogue on the spot. Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 is a look at the film's art direction and the thought process behind the design of the aliens and their technology. Alien Generation: Visual Effects focused on how the effects artists used still photography and lighting to replace the stand-in actors with CGI prawns in post production.
All of these brief featurettes are worth checking out if you're still hankering for more, but overall the second disc feels light on substance. Much was said of the short film Blomkamp directed that caught producer Peter Jackson's eye, it would have been nice if they had included it on the second disc. The same goes for all the viral advertising and online games they created for the film.
A great sci-fi film works on a number of levels: for those looking for commentary or satire, District 9 has plenty of it; but it's also an exciting and action-packed popcorn flick that succeeds on the most basic of entertainment levels.
District 9 is one of the best movies of the year.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review