February 24, 2010
Since the year 2007, rumors began about a movie adaptation of the popular video game, "Halo". It soon became official that Peter Jackson would produce the film, and that a South African newcomer named Neill Blomkamp would be at the helm of the project. Despite not having experience in feature-length films, Blomkamp had already established himself as the most appropriate director for the movie after his "Landfall" trilogy of short films based on "Halo" gave him critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the "Halo" project couldn't be launched and the movie version of the popular video game collapsed during preproduction. However, producer Peter Jackson still wanted to give Blomkamp a chance, and decided to produce an adaptation of one of Blomkamp's earlier short films, the sci-fi mock documentary "Alive in Joburg" (a six minute short film about stranded aliens facing xenophobia). Expanding the themes and style of "Alive in Joburg", the end result was one of the most original science fiction films of the last years: "District 9".
In "District 9", a major event has changed the history of South Africa: in 1982, a large alien spaceship became stranded above the city of Johannesburg. Inside the spaceship was found a large group of members of an extraterrestrial species who are given asylum on Earth. Years go by and things in Johannesburg get complicated as the aliens enter the already convoluted social situation of the country. Ostrasized and hated (and derogatorily referred to as "prawns"), the aliens live in poverty and engage in criminal activities. After human protests, the aliens are confined to a government camp inside Johannesburg, called District 9, which despite massive police presence, soon turns into a slum. More than 20 years after the aliens' arrival, a private military corporation named Multinational United (MNU) takes the task of relocating the 1.8 million aliens to a new camp, District 10; and field operative Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the man in charge of the mission. And literally, it'll be a mission that will change his life.
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, "District 9" uses comedy and science fiction to explore themes such as xenophobia with a sharp and intelligent humor. Given its setting, it's obviously a commentary on the Apartheid era, the forced evictions and the segregation that was lived in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. "District 9" begins following the style of Blomkamp's original short film, "Alive in Joburg", as it opens as a documentary about the relocation of the aliens and the mysterious fate of Wikus van de Merwe. As the story unfolds it moves back and forth from the documentary to the actual events of the relocation, uncovering what exactly happened to Wikus van de Merwe during the mission. With the perfect mix of humor and intelligence, Blomkamp and Tatchell built up a story that transcends science fiction and becomes a powerful character study filled with interesting twists and surprisingly, a lot of heart. If there's anything to criticize, it probably would be that the film certainly lacks subtlety when it comes to showcase it's political message.
As written above, "District 9" moves from the documentary about the eviction, to the actual development of the events, so the film is presented in two different, yet complementary styles. The documentary side is given a very realist look, akin to Blomkamp's "Alive in Joburg", complete with footage from MNU's operation and interviews with those involved. The actual story of the film receives a more traditional treatment, yet Blomkamp keeps the realism by employing mainly a hand-held technique, very much on the "cinéma vérité" school of thought, as it's all done to transport the audience to the story, as if it was truly, news footage. It's certainly a risky decision, but Blomkamp makes it work with the instrumental aide of cinematographer Trent Opaloch, whom employs digital cinema to achieve this realism in a fantastical tale about extraterrestrials. Julian Clarke's work of editing is worthy of praise, as it keeps the movement from the documentary style to the action film at a quite dynamic and natural rhythm.
Acting through the film is quite good, with Sharlto Copley (whom produced and starred Blomkamp's "Alive in Joburg") delivering a terrific performance as Wikus, the model officer whom gets involved in the amazing events that take place during the eviction of District 9. Copley makes Wikus a very human character, and even when it's certainly difficult to like him initially (as Wikus is written as a flawed human being, not the typical hero), Copley's charm and presence truly makes it work. The way the character grows and is developed, while a tad clichéd, doesn't feel as forced as could had been. Another face from "Alive in Joburg", Jason Cope, appears not only as Grey Bradnam, but also as Christian, the alien. Cope's job as the extraterrestrial creature is noteworthy, as while the visual effects alone are already amazing, his performance is truly the icing of the cake and give the creature a heart. Finally, David James makes a great turn as Koobus Venter, the chief mercenary sent to hunt extraterrestrials at District 9. As the main villain, James is certainly extraordinary.
Perhaps "District 9"'s greatest asset is just how fresh it feels amidst most of the recent sci-fi films released by major studios. With a relatively low budget, Jackson and Blomkamp take the genre back to its roots and use it to offer insight about a particular situation of the human condition. While it has the subtlety of a hammer, "District 9"'s exploration of xenophobia and segregation in South Africa (and the world) makes for an interesting discussion; and the way Blomkamp employs comedy to make his statement is cleverly unusual and fun. In a way, a film like "District 9" (which has a political agenda, an anti-hero as main character, and a visual style that moves back and forth from documentary to action film) is not exactly an easy story to sell, and even less simple to make properly; but with creativity and talent, Neill Blomkamp and his team managed to create this little gem with a modest budget and without sacrificing its edge. Subtle or not, with an agenda or not, "District 9" exists entirely as its makers wanted it to be, and it's one hell of a ride, in terms of entertainment.
Fresh, clever and fun, "District 9" is a powerful masterpiece of science fiction that hopefully, will go on in history as one of the genre's first true gems of the 21st century. What Blomkamp and his crew achieved here is worthy of praise, as without a big budget, they have created a terrific work that certainly shows that science fiction can be more than typical space operas and merchandising gold mines, that it still can be used to deliver a message or to state something. Together with Duncan Jones' "Moon", and even Cameron's "Avatar" and Abrams' "Star Trek", Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" points to a resurgence of science fiction with a purpose, with a soul.