From the ashes of a Summer littered with so many blockbusters that failed to catch fire, District 9 rose phoenix-like to show the big boys how it should be done. A hollow Terminator reboot here, a limp Wolverine there, a dispiriting dose of mindless Bayhem to top it all off. Just when Hollywood was running out of ideas, Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature came armed to the teeth with them.
Marrying dazzling sci-fi and down-and-dirty commentary on class and racial segregation in post-Apartheid Johannesberg, it’s an achievement as impressive as it is exciting. With a relatively small budget of just $30m, District 9 followed the Cloverfield route of viral marketing to whip up a frenzy of anticipation. Like that JJ Abrams-shepherded film from 2008, Blomkamp had a powerful producer in his corner to help fight his battles for him in Peter Jackson.
And like Cloverfield, D9 knew that hype would count for nothing if you’ve nothing to back it up with, delivering on the promise hinted at in its cryptic teasers. It crams a lot into its lean 100 minute running time – comedy, drama, action, social parable – yet still manages to satisfy on all counts.
Sharlto Copley’s Wikus van der Merwe is the heartbeat of the film. A company drone who’s as detestable as he is likeable when we first see him, he casually jokes about the popping sound burning alien eggs make as he incinerates them with his colleagues. Blomkamp’s film revolves around having this character slowly become that which he hates – one of ‘them’. And he succeeds by having Wikus’ arc far more interesting than the norm.
It’s not often in a mainstream movie that we’re given a protagonist who remains so hateful and selfish for such a long stretch. It rests on Copley to draw us in and make us care about a man who calls aliens ‘prawns’ without a second’s thought. He does the comedy first, with D9‘s opening half hour interspersing rapid fire exposition (all talking heads and straight to cameras) with Wikus’ Office-style comic interludes. Largely improvised by Copley et al, the film has a raw vitality.
Mixing camcorder style shots with faux security camera footage and handheld cameras, D9‘s early ‘wow’ moments are like smash-and-grabs; they’re not shouted at you in big, epic sweeping camera moves, but whispered over a low-res veneer.
Blomkamp wears his influences firmly on his sleeve. You can sense this is someone who grew up on a diet of classic 80s sci-fi films like Robocop and Aliens. He even mixes in Cronenbergian body horror as Wikus slowly loses fingernails and teeth.
And you can see the flashes of the Halo film Blomkamp would have made had the rug not been pulled from under him during its development. A mid-film siege attack by Wikus and his alien ally Christopher plays in part like a first-person shooter videogame, complete with outrageously over-the-top alien weaponry.
Blood covers the screen like Peter Jackson in his prime, as bodies and heads explode in graphic detail. It’s gory, but by grounding it in a reality far removed from the popcorn sci-fi of Independence Day, Blomkamp’s excesses never feel gratuitous.
And its ancored by Copley’s subtle shift that sees him drop the comedy and bring in the pathos. His journey from racist, downtrodden company stooge to full-blown action hero is underpinned with a tangible sadness as he loses a life with the woman he loves.
Some critics have decried D9‘s final half hour, accusing it of dropping the drama in favour of slam-bang entertainment. And while it is partly that, it’s made so more than just action for the sake of it by what’s come before. Like the metal exo suit at the centre of the destruction, D9 is a big, stunning spectacle with a real, pulsating humanity underneath.
There’s the hint of a sequel, a District 10, in the film’s closing scrawl, but let’s hope not. Some things are perfectly formed. District 9 is such a thing. Don’t just take my word for it.
In a nice touch, the disc treats you to two different Menu screens, depending on whether you choose alien or human from the start up menu. Although you have to fast forward past an enforced This Is It trailer to get there, which isn’t so nice.
On the extras front, there are the increasingly common Blu-ray features: CineChat, Movie IQ and BD Live content, all pleasant enough without being all that exciting. A bit more special is ‘Joburg from Above’, an interactive map that allows you to examine in exhaustive detail the inner workings of the film’s many locations and alien crafts. It looks fantastic but comes off a little dry and static.
Much better is ‘The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log’, a satisfying documentary with all the major players: Blomkamp, Jackson, Copley and other key cast and crew. It’s only 34 minutes, but serves as a fascinating insight into Blomkamp getting to grips with his first feature. Elsewhere, the disc’s plentiful featurettes (four of them, totalling 45 minutes) cover everything the documentary hasn’t got time for.
‘The Acting and Improvisation of District 9’ is one of the best, looking at how the cast improvised all their own dialogue, and giving a teaser of a Copley American accent (it’s reassuringly good ahead of his Murdock in The A-Team). And ‘Designing the World of District 9’ references the 80s sci-fi films as inspiration for the film’s look, as well as delving into the film’s very cool exo suit.
There’s an audio commentary from Blomkamp, recorded prior to the film’s release in cinemas. The director’s good on the social context of the film and South Africa, but less so on behind the scenes nuggets. He’s erudite and always interesting (and often comfortingly geeky as he declares his love for shots of heads exploding), but it could have done with Copley in the booth to liven it up a bit.
Rounding things out are quite a few deleted scenes, most of which were deleted for good reason. A lot are just padding, talking heads with locals and scenes of MNU workers going about their evictions without adding anything new. Stay tuned for the latter ones, though, as they give a nice glimpse of actor Jason Cope decked out in a motion capture suit acting out the parts of aliens being evicted, plus one educational video style scene that describes the aliens as self-producing asexuals.
There’s no sign of the original Blomkamp short, Alive In Joburg, which is a shame. But since it’s readily viewable on YouTube, that’s not so bad.
All in all, it’s a great package; one of the best films of the summer gets a suitably jam-packed Blu-ray.