U.K. Movie Review: District 9
You can judge a society by how it treats the least of its peoples. But what if you expand that truism beyond individual societies and apply it to the human race? How would we react to interplanetary refugees who are forced into isolation and damned to scrape out life as a hopeless underclass?
That’s the semi-theoretical social dilemma posed to audiences by the debut theatrical work of director Neill Blomkamp. The South African-bred writer/director caught the eye of Peter Jackson, famed director and producer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming The Lovely Bones, who commissioned Blomkamp to work on the now-defunct Halo film adaptation. While Halo may be long gone, the skills he demonstrated on the short test films were enough to give Jackson the confidence in Blomkamp to create a genre piece of genuine significance.
District 9 is the result of both Blomkamp’s demonstrable talent as a filmmaker and clearly sensitivity towards the social welfare of those displaced through apartheid in South Africa – hence, District 9 is semi-theoretical. This is not Transformers-esque twaddle hidden under a veil of authenticity.
As far-removed from a Michael Bay action movie as District 9 is, that’s not to say that the experience is anything less than completely absorbing and intense. This is easily one of the best science fiction films of recent years – up there with similarly toned works like The Abyss or even the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. Handicam shots of Johannesburg’s muted skyline, filled with a tremendous alien craft bearing down silently on upon it and its downtrodden residents, sets the scene perfectly – two disparate cultures about to clash.
Twenty years of racism, bureaucracy and violence later, we join the pencil-pushing lead character, Wikus van der Merwe, as he joins security forces to move the segregated alien residents of District 9 into even more oppressive, concentration camp-like dwellings. Things do not go smoothly, and Wikus’ life begins to spiral out of control.
Wikus is portrayed with surprising sincerity by virtual unknown South African actor, Sharlto Copley. Copley is initially a little self-conscious on screen but seems to ease into the roll as the film progresses and his character is injected with a few interesting personality quirks and hurdles to overcome. As he evolves as a character, the more likeable and believable he becomes; less of a two-dimension office flack, if you will, and more of the leading man he needs to be in order to carry the weight of the narrative.
Some side-characters and their involvements don’t fare quite as well; the gung-ho military forces, lead by your typically brutish jarhead-a-likes, are sadly predictable, and a key figure close to Wikus seems inexplicably warped just beyond the limits of believability. That said, we’re not talking about major issues – just small areas of acting and storytelling that will likely improve in subsequent films, given Blomkamp’s relative inexperience.
Playing to Peter Jackson’s strengths as a producer – and conveniently, his access to Weta Workshops – Blomkamp’s alien race are confronting and occasionally pitiful bunch. Branded the derogatory nickname ‘Prawns’ by bigots on the front line, the beings are handled with the same sterling level of detail and care that we’ve come to expect (and perhaps take for granted) from Jackson’s Weta. They’re insectoid in appearance; all hard angles and ridges – but the film affords audiences the occasional close-up, betraying wide, thoughtful eyes and enough humanity to make these CG creations sensitive and sympathetic to the audience. Of these, ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his child, become core to the story.
Their struggle to keep their culture alive takes a backseat to simply trying to survive – the interplay between parent and child is poignant, often displaying more kindness and humanity than even Wikus’ own family. Their hostile world is filled with fantastic sets and props –again, nothing that should come as a surprise, given the pedigree of effects talent at work behind the camera.
Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut is visually bold; eighty percent of the film is told through either recounted testimonials or on-foot ‘documentary camera crews’ following the action and relating it directly back to the audience. The other twenty percent follows more traditional methods of filmmaking – cutting away to private moments between key characters, away from the documentary crews.
It’s a style that has played out successfully in past sci-fi genre subversions like Cloverfield, and even Blomkamp’s own ‘Alive in JoBurg’ (which is something of a test piece or companion tale to District 9). Low-resolution video tape is intermingled with subtle CG effects to mesmerising and convincing effect. Perhaps it’s not as breakthrough as it might have been pre-Cloverfield, but it certainly makes for more compelling viewing than your typical high-gloss Hollywood production. If there’s any downside to this, the shooting style does occasionally feel like Blomkamp is trying to throw in an example of every technique he’s capable of – perhaps an offshoot of first-film overcompensation.
Regardless, the beauty of adopting the documentary style for the bulk of District 9 is in the tone that we, as an audience, come to expect from a documentary. We are compelled to accept this documentary footage as fact, and that what we’re watching is of clearly a document of some importance. It sets audiences up to expect a mild ‘documentary’ tone – perhaps something almost humorous – and it makes the eventual bursts of violence and extreme gore all the more arresting. If you have a serious aversion to exploding heads, bursting bodies and high-impact scenes of violence against insectoid-beings, steer clear.
Of course, these moments of punctuated violence only serve to underline how delicately handled most of the film actually is. The accompanying score, composed by Clinton Shorter, mixes in African vocals and classical tones –reinforcing the setting of the film and reminding audiences that there’s more to scoring a motion picture than simply hiring Harry Gregson-Williams or Danny Elfman.
District 9’s testimonial-format also draws on racial tensions between black and white South Africans and appropriates it beautifully. The dialogue never harps on about the follies of prejudice –and again, District 9 could be taken on surface value alone as a science fiction action film and still satisfy the lowest common denominator out there in the audience.
That said, we suppose Blomkamp hopes viewers will peer a little more deeply into the situation and see the real story being told – a very real oppression that is ongoing in South Africa – and one that can’t afford to be ignored. As audiences are compelled early in the film to “learn from what has happened”, Blomkamp uses District 9 to quietly remind us that it’s too late for some.