by Steve Habrat
Before August of 2009, the summer movie season had largely been an uneventful one. About the only films worth talking about were the spiffed up reboot of the sagging Star Trek franchise and Pixar’s Up, which was a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of adventure in all of us. Then August 14th arrived and the summer movie season received the electric shock that it severely needed. Enter Neill Blomkamp, a little known South African director who had been developing a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. With their Halo project abandoned, Blomkamp and Jackson opted to make District 9, a gritty, Johannesburg-set science-fiction allegory for apartheid that was based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Celebrated as one of the most original sci-fi films of recent memory, District 9 boasts creativity as far as the eye can see, featuring a breathless pace, gruesome action that isn’t for the faint of heart, imaginative extraterrestrials, alien weaponry guaranteed to make geeks everywhere giddy, and a classic performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley. As if a strong late summer opening and critical acclaim weren’t enough for District 9, the film went on to earn a surprising four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Not too shabby for a $30 million sci-fi actioner that could have easily been overlooked by the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
District 9 begins by explaining that in 1982, a UFO came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After hovering motionless for several days, an investigation team entered the ship and discovered thousands of malnourished aliens fighting for their lives. With the world watching, the South African government rounded up the aliens and moved them to a government camp called District 9, which is located just outside of the city. After several nasty run-ins between the locals and the aliens (the locals refer to them as “Prawns”), the government created Multinational United, a company that is tasked with moving the aliens to District 10, a new camp further outside Johannesburg. The man in charge of this project is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a lowly MNU employee who receives a promotion from company executive Piet Smith (played by Louis Minnar), who also happens to be Wikus’ father-in-law. Wikus and a heavily armed task force arrive in District 9 to serve eviction notices, but while investigating, Wikus stumbles upon a laboratory set-up in the home of Christopher Johnson (played by Jason Cope), a clever alien capable of piloting the massive UFO back to alien’s home planet. While snooping around the lab, Wikus finds a small canister that contains a thick black fluid. After accidentally spraying himself in the face with the liquid, Wikus begins mutating into an alien and finds himself being hunted by the corporation that once employed him. With MNU closing in, Wikus takes shelter in District 9 and seeks the help of Christopher, who agrees to fix Wikus if he agrees to help Christopher get to the alien mothership.
Opting for a “found footage” style over a conventional approach, District 9 is instantly given a much more intimate feel through a series of downtrodden interviews, cinema vértité-esque exchanges and encounters in the field, and stock footage news reports that aid in the exposition. This approach instantly separates District 9 from the rest of the sci-fi bunch (well, except maybe from Cloverfield, which applied the “found footage” style to prey upon our post 9/11 paranoia). The middle section of the film finds Blomkamp largely abandoning this approach only to re-embracing it in the action packed climax. Yet we don’t even notice that Blomkamp has dropped this style because we have completely lost ourselves in this alternate reality. When the whirlwind of action blows through the climax, the breaking news reports and the surveillance footage adds a brutal edge to the violence. People are ripped apart by alien weaponry, spaceships crash into dilapidated huts, alien droids send bullets rocketing back at the MNU forces, and that motionless spaceship begins to move. Through all of this chaos, we hold our breath for Wikus, who is the sole cause of all of this bloodshed.
On its own, District 9 would have had enough creative juice in the tank to allow it to cross the finish line, but Blomkamp made the wise decision to cast his real-life buddy Sharlto Copley as Wikus. Copley, who had never acted before this, throws himself into the role as if he may never get the chance to star in a summer movie again. Believe me when I say that he takes a really good movie and makes it great. The off-the-cuff scenes of Wikus fumbling with his microphone add a bit of humor to a film that is gravely serious and a scene in which Wikus gushes over his wife for the cameras is truly a touching moment. Even though he may be a giant loveable dweeb in the slower scenes, Copley shows he can run with the big dogs when the action explodes. Copley also shares plenty of tender moments with Cope’s Christopher Johnson, a resourceful alien who will do whatever it takes to protect his precocious young son. David James is particularly vicious as Colonel Koobus Venter, the brutal muscle of the MNU tasked with hunting the terrified Wikus down. Eugene Khumbanyiwa gives a grotesque turn as Obesandjo, the paralyzed leader of the Nigerian arms dealers who has a stomach-churning taste for alien flesh. Together, James and Khumbanyiwa form a particularly nasty thorn in Wikus’ side and make for two seriously memorable movie villains. Vanessa Haywood balances out the evil as Tania, Wikus’ heartbroken wife who wonders if she will ever see her husband again.
While District 9 has plenty of action and gee-whiz wonder at its core, the film does have quite a bit of depth to it. It is no secret that District 9 is an allegory for the apartheid era that gripped South Africa during the 1960s and there certainly is an exploration of racism, which allows the film to retain a lasting relevance. The heady ideas are a nice touch and they are smartly balanced out in between the mesmerizing performances, gut-punch action, and the breathtaking pacing. And I can’t forget to mention the impressive special effects executed on a shoestring budget. The aliens are cool and that spaceship that looms over ever shot consistently fills us with sublime wonder. As far as flaws go, there are very few to be found within District 9, although there are a couple of plot points that could have been elaborated on but that would just be nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Overall, upon your first viewing of District 9, there is absolutely no way you can walk away untouched by it. It is fueled by pure vision and adrenaline, and this strange brew is spiced up with a performance from Sharlto Copley that genre fans will be talking about for years to come. No matter how many times you see District 9, it is always like watching it for the first time. It deserves to join the ranks of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.