District 9 review

A sci-fi movie with great visual effects AND a brain: did someone in Hollywood miss a meeting...?

District 9

As far as mentors go, Peter ‘Lord Of The Rings’ Jackson has to be up there with the very biggest. Just imagine it: you’re a young filmmaker, talented but as yet untried, and one of the most powerful men in world cinema takes you under his wing.

With his (Jackson’s) backing, you secure a $30 million budget for your first feature – a virtual mockumentary on extraterrestrial apartheid, set in Johannesburg, without a single star actor attached – and are given total creative control of the project. Yeah, it’s safe to say District 9‘s director, Neill Blomkamp, was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But, oh boy, did the man deliver. District 9 is the most audacious sci-fi action film since The Matrix – and there can be no higher praise than that. 

The 28 year-old Blomkamp – a South African native who moved to Canada in his late teens – has always been something of a high achiever, starting his career in 3D animation and VFX at the tender age of 16, before going on to direct award-winning music videos and commercials (including the famous Citroen’s breakdancing robot ad, Alive with Technology).

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So it was clear from the start that Jackson’s protégée was something of a prodigy. After being slated to direct the now defunct Halo adaptation, Blomkamp pitched Jackson an expanded story based on his short film Alive In Jo’Burg. The King of Kiwis loved it and greenlit the project.

The plot of District 9 has been kept closely under wraps, using a viral marketing campaign of teaser trailers and a drip feed of titillating titbits – so don’t expect the game to be given away here. This sense of anticipation is vital to District 9‘s aura of the unknown.

Very briefly then, the film is set in an alternate reality where 20 years ago a monolithic spaceship appeared over the skies of Johannesburg…and then did nothing. After several months, the spaceship was breached, revealing a million aliens, known only as Prawns, in a state of socio-regression.

Unsure as to how to continue, the South African government housed the refugees in a makeshift shantytown, District 9, where mass corruption soon became rife. Now, with public patience over the alien situation exhausted, a private defence company, the MNU (Multi-National United), have been employed to deal with the problem, who decide to pack the Prawns off to a purpose built concentration camp, District 10.

During the relocation process, which soon becomes a brutal disaster zone, bumbling MNU field agent Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a lovable Afrikaans redneck with a striking similarity to Rhys Darby’s Murray character from Flight Of The Concords, and promoted way over his head because he married a MNU executive’s daughter,  gets involved in an Earth-shattering series of events.

Principally presented as a documentary on Wikus’ involvement in the events leading up to and after the Prawns’ extraordinary rendition, District 9 is a multimedia mash-up of TV news reports, vérité handycam footage, home movie outtakes, CCTV film and interviews.

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However, unlike many of these ultra-real mock-ups, Blomkamp also fuses traditional filming into the mix. So whereas similar movies like Cloverfield and [REC] have always suffered from the ‘why are they still recording?’ question, District 9 doesn’t have to shoehorn in some contrived explanation for this.

In a nutshell: if the camera being there isn’t plausible, just film it normally. It’s a brave, and hugely self-assured, decision that frees District 9 from the – let’s be honest – gimmicky nature of the Blair Witch device, and allows it to become a ‘real’ film in its own right. And what a film it is.

A visual masterpiece, particularly when its budget, relatively minor in the blockbuster stakes, is taken into account (Jackson described it as a ‘tiny project’, but then he has his own standards), District 9 puts a lot of recent event movies to shame. No wonder Blomkamp was regarded as a CGI genius – we’re talking Dark Knight levels of sexiness here.

Surging along at a breakneck, kinetic pace, and hardly pausing for a moment’s breath, District 9 is an audio-visual tour de force. The experience is like mainlining pure adrenalin, and so intensely engrossing that by the time the climax plays out and the credits roll, you’ll be buzzing harder than an ADD twelve-year-old dosed up on a cocktail of Ritalin and Red Bull.

And yet, the action remains crisp and clear throughout. There’s none of the Bay-esk, epilepsy-inducing Gatling gun editing and uber CG commotion so common in science fiction nowadays. You actually know what’s going on, all the time. Character development and world building isn’t sidelined in favour of spectacle ether.

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Blomkamp throws in a healthy sense of gallows humour and a fully realised plot, devoid of any major holes. The decision to base the film in South Africa is priceless – even without apartheid parallels – and the Prawns’ social customs and physiological differences from our human ones doesn’t make their leap to reviled, second class citizens unbelievable. It is, in fact, a hugely likely reaction, sadly enough.

Stuffed full of the little details that create a bigger whole – the lead alien being called Christopher and the African warlord’s black market exploitation of the Prawn’s weakness for cat food, for example – District 9 is a perfect example of a brilliant premise executed to perfection.

Could this have been done within the strict confines of the Hollywood studio system? Who knows? Blomkamp hit the jackpot when he found a benefactor of Peter Jackson’s stature, but has repaid him in turn and produced the most startlingly original film for a long, long time.

With District 9 The MTV generation has come of age, and Blomkamp proven that the Children of the Eighties, weaned on a diet of boundless imagination, have the vision to redefine the scope of mainstream cinema much like Lucas, Ford Coppola and Spielberg did before them. If only someone is brave enough to give them a chance.

Yes, it really is that good.

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District 9 goes on general UK release on the 4th of September.

Rating:

5 out of 5