One of my favorite films from this year’s SXSW was Monsters, the directorial debut of a resourceful British independent filmmaker by the name of Gareth Edwards. Because Monsters is a low budget movie set in Earth’s near future about aliens that live in a quarantined zone in a third world country, it is only inevitable that people make the comparison between Edwards’ film and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. A coy marketing campaign on the part of Magnet Releasing, who are distributing the film in the United States, that keeps the titular non-humans out of the spotlight isn’t helping anything, either.
So the question is, is Monsters indeed this year’s District 9?
Yes…and no. On the no front, aside from a few elements that are vaguely overlapping – the third world setting, the use of street signs warning about the long-established quarantine zone, a small cast comprised of people you probably haven’t heard of – the two are completely different films. Unfortunately, that may prove to be a problem for Monsters.
Given the film’s title and the marketing, which emphasizes the scale of the quarantine zone and how destructive the unseen beasts can be over the actual plot of a man escorting his bosses daughter through the dangerous zone, I think a lot of audiences are going to be expecting something along the lines of D9. I can hardly blame those expectations. If I hadn’t been fortunate enough to catch the film’s world premiere at SXSW, if all I had to go on was the marketing, I too would be expecting a more Hollywood-style alien invasion movie. That’s not what Monsters is, though. From my review over at Sci-Fi Squad:
Those expecting a non-stop effects extravaganza should temper their hopes right now; Monsters is not the film they’re looking for. Gareth Edwards certainly has no apprehensions about showing off his behemoths, but this is not their movie. This is Andrew and Sam’s movie and that is precisely what makes Monsters so unique. It’s not about blowing your mind with action, it’s about creating an all-encompassing universe in which this subtle and soft story can exist.
So, no, the two are not alike in terms of end goal. Blomkamp’s film is a sci-fi actioner, Edwards’ film is a sci-fi romance. If anything, Monsters is best summarized as District 9 meets Before Sunrise. That said, there is still another half to the answer.
One of the reasons critics and fans alike loved District 9 is because it was different and original and looked like it was made on a budget 10x times the amount of what actually went into the movie. In the production department, Monsters is without question this year’s District 9. The entire movie was made on a microbudget with a crew of two people (yes, two people!) and filmed completely on location. In fact, it’s even more removed from the studio system because Edwards did everything by himself.
All of the special effects were created by him at home using nothing but off-the-shelf software and equipment that you or I could easily get a hold of. If he didn’t know how to do a particular effect, he looked it up online and figured out how to do it. You’d never be able to tell that from the film, though. The effects aren’t just stunning, however, they’re also prolific. The tanks? The signs warning about the aliens? The explosions? Edwards added them all in post production, but they’re often so subtle that many of them won’t even register as special effects at all– and that’s one of the greatest compliments you can ever pay a sci-fi film.
“This year’s District 9 or not, Monsters is still a must see movie. I’m sure a good deal of people have been anticipating it thanks to all the festival buzz, but I’m also sure that it’s not on most people’s radar. If you’re in the former group, then I’m yet another person confirming that it’s as special a film as everyone else has been saying. If you’re in the latter camp, however, I kind of envy you. I’d love to see the movie without knowing anything about it all over again.
Having said that, I’m actually not sure what has me more excited to see Monsters again, the above trailer or the below (spoiler free) making-of clip:
IGN.com give District 9 5 out 5 stars. Doesn’t get much better than that. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do yourself a favour and see it. Now either read the review or watch the video:
In truth, there is a downside to what we do here. In this online age of previews, reviews, trailers, clips, interviews, blogs and podcasts, we have traded the mystery of movies for the knowledge of their industry. Remember back to the pre-Web days, when trailers were merely 60-second edits of imagery and plot, when the darkness of a movie theater concealed the promise of some uncertain journey. This is how I saw District 9, having glimpsed nothing but a vague teaser trailer, having read no rumors, having scanned or examined or pondered not one single image. And whether this was the result of some poorly-executed marketing campaign or a brilliant strategy of secrecy, it was the best and most appropriate way to see it.
So let’s begin at the ending, starting with that final paragraph, the general summary which renders our verdict with nary a spoiler to be found. Read on for more if you choose, or come back after having seen the movie fresh, so long as you see it at all:
District 9 is a remarkable work and a truly benchmark science fiction film. Offering an expert balance of narrative, character, sub-text, action, effects and performance, Neill Blomkamp’s cinematic debut is the film that fans have been waiting years (or perhaps even decades) for. There is scale here, both grand and intimate. Its heroes are distinctive; it’s setting unique. Its action is spectacular and its drama is equal parts heartfelt and terrifying. Most importantly, it feels new. There is a mind at work in Blomkamp and District 9 is that rare celebration of science fiction that will undoubtedly help define the genre for years to come.
When a derelict alien spacecraft drifts into the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, the world is stunned to find the remains of a dying alien population aboard. Brought down into a facility called District 9, the Prawns – as the humans refer to them – have had nearly 20 years to integrate into society, but racism and prejudice against the impoverished, shanty-town aliens steadily increases. The corporation MNU is developed to handle the human-alien relations and it is during an unprecedented attempt to relocate the more than one million alien residents that Wikus – little more than an Everyman pencil-pusher – is unwittingly made the key to the human’s ability to utilize the aliens’ DNA-encoded weaponry. On the run with an alien named Christopher Johnson, Wikus must find a way to make things right for both himself and the Prawns so that both species, alien and human alike, can return home.
District 9 is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg — the short which got the attention of producer Peter Jackson and Blomkamp subsequently attached to the long-abandoned adaptation of Halo. Using the same documentary-style approach to the material, District 9 is incredibly grounded, making grand science fiction feel tremendously real. This is partly due to the fact that the special effects in the film are taken almost for granted. The massive alien ship hangs in the sky above the city like an afterthought, hazy and out of focus through the constantly shifting lens of the camera. The aliens – a triumph of computer animation and digital character work – feel fully a part of the universe, blurring the line between CG creations and human performers, the standout of which is Wikus himself, Sharlto Copley.
With no prior acting experience, Copley creates a wholly fascinating character. Just promoted by his father-in-law who runs MNU, Wikus wants nothing more than to get ahead, kissing ass and acting far more authoritative than his status allows. In fact, he’s relatively unlikeable. He’s a white-collar nobody, inconsequential to both the characters and the audience. And that Copley is able to transition Wikus into an increasingly sympathetic character as the film continues – still flawed, still evolving – is a testament to the actor’s raw talent. Equally impressive is Wikus’ growing bond with Christopher, demanding that Copley create a dynamic relationship with little more than thin air, a relationship without which the film simply doesn’t work. We’ve seen this attempted before in Jackson’s own films, with Gollum or King Kong, but never has it worked so well and to such emotional effect.
Needless to say, however, the genre requires some degree of action, and Blomkamp absolutely delivers. While District 9 begins as a character piece, exploring and growing this new alien-human world, the second half features some stunning action pieces. The alien weaponry which becomes such a driving force to the story is put on brilliant display with some disastrous effects to the human anatomy. This film definitely earns its R-rating once the fighting begins, and Blomkamp knows how to layer the film with bigger and bigger moments without completely disengaging from the reality he so successfully creates. For all the explosions, all the gore, all the lasers and giant, fully-equipped mech-suits, it all feels, oddly enough, completely authentic and totally plausible.
The best pieces of genre filmmaking – be they horror or sci-fi or fantasy – begin with an idea, some human and universal notion that audiences can take with them throughout the journey, either consciously or unconsciously. Sadly, this is so often lacking in most modern-day fare, and District 9 is almost wholly unique this year in combining fantastic action with thoughtful, narrative filmmaking. In the mainstream, there’s no reason this film should exist. Set in South Africa, no big stars, sub-titled alien dialogue, unlikely heroes, an unpolished documentary approach… And yet, the film works so well because of not in spite of all of that.
But herein lies the rub. The trouble with giving this film the five stars we’ve elected to give it is simply that it elevates expectations; it drives people to know more, filling their cinematic bellies before the main course even begins. Know only that the movie is good, it is important, it is strongly made. Let words like “great” and “brilliant” and “genre-defining” linger after the credits have rolled. Go to the film as empty as you can, and believe us, you’ll leave satisfied, and with the urge to book a return trip to District 9.
These are the movies arriving in theaters, August 14, 2009
Synopsis: Over twenty years ago, aliens made first contact with Earth. Humans waited for the hostile attack, or the giant advances in technology. Neither came. Instead, the aliens were refugees, the last survivors of their home world. The creatures were set up in a makeshift home in South Africa’s District 9 as the world’s nations argued over what to do with them. Now, patience over the alien situation has run out. Control over the aliens has been contracted out to Multi-National United (MNU), a private company uninterested in the aliens’ welfare – they will receive tremendous profits if they can make the aliens’ awesome weaponry work. So far, they have failed; activation of the weaponry requires alien DNA. The tension between the aliens and the humans comes to a head when an MNU field operative, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), contracts a mysterious virus that begins changing his DNA. Wikus quickly becomes the most hunted man in the world, as well as the most valuable – he is the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology. Ostracized and friendless, there is only one place left for him to hide: District 9.
Cast: William Allen Young, Robert Hobbs, Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope; Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Synopsis: “Ponyo” is the latest tour de force from animation master Hayao Miyazaki and his Academy Award® winning Studio Ghibli. Perfect for audiences of all ages, “Ponyo” is a return to the innocent pleasures of My Neighbor Totoro, with dazzling and entirely hand-drawn visuals that start simply and erupt into fluid, cascading symphonies of color. The story centers on the loving relationship between Sosuke, a five-year-old boy, and a magical goldfish named Ponyo, the rambunctious young daughter of a sorcerer father and a sea-goddess mother. After a chance encounter, Ponyo yearns to become a human so she can be with Sosuke. As to be expected with Miyazaki, the film is awash in pure unbridled imagination and visual wonder-but it is the tender warmth, humor, and devotion of Ponyo and Sosuke that form the emotional heart of this film. In English – featuring the voices of Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas.
Synopsis: The love story focuses on a couple in which the man has a genetic disorder known as “chrono-impairment,” a condition that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. Jeremy Leven wrote the adaptation.
Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston, Jane McLean; Directed By: Robert Schwentke
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.
The Hobbit, Lovely Bones, Tintin, Dambusters and more.
Christopher Monfette from IGN reports on the goings on at San Diego Comic Con 2009.
IGN was part of a very select group of people invited to attend an intimate conversation with filmmaker Peter Jackson in the aftermath of a screening of the absolutely stunning District 9. For a whopping 90 minutes, Jackson filled us in on his latest batch of projects, including The Hobbit, The Lovely Bones, Tintin, Temeraire and Dambusters. Look for a more robust report on the conversation later during the Con, but for the moment, check out the updates below:
With The Hobbit, I didn’t want to be too involved with looking over the shoulder of the director. Part of the reason I wanted to produce the films and not direct them was not to compete against myself… Guillermo is there because I thought he’d do a terrific job with that movie. It wasn’t the job for a novice filmmaker.
We’re about three weeks from turning over the script for the first Hobbit movie to the studio. We wrote a treatment for the two films which we pitched to the studio. There was talk about doing The Hobbit as one movie and then doing a bridge movie to Lord of the Rings. We worked through the storyline and thought that we could squeeze The Hobbit into one movie, but even with a three hour movie, you’d be amazed with how much of that story you’d have to lose. We included all the events that we’d like to see, plus the fact that we wanted to embellish a few things and put a couple extra narratives in for Gandalf and the Necromancer. So we decided that the two movies should be The Hobbit, Part One and Part Two.
The Lovely Bones
I had done four of those big blockbuster effects movies and I just felt like trying something that was going to be hard and difficult and very different. Like anyone we know, you just want to keep trying things that you aren’t sure that you can do. So this seemed like a very interesting challenge. I loved the book. I cried when I read the book. I think how you take that book when you read it is very much based on your own life experience – if you had loved ones that you’d lost, you’d take a very different direction. And the film is equally personal. It was a very, very difficult book to adapt. It doesn’t lend itself to a film structure. We haven’t slavishly followed the book. There are big sections of the book that we didn’t use; we elaborated on other bits. It’s certainly a personal adaptation rather than a copy.
It’s not my vision of the afterlife; it’s Susie’s. She’s a little girl in 1973 when she dies, so we had a very ’70s idea of the afterlife. People refer to it as Heaven, but you never actually see Heaven in the story. The idea, which is in the book, is that each person experiences it based upon what their life experience is, so what Susie experiences in her afterlife is based upon being a 14 year old in 1973 and the pop culture she’s grown up with and the life experience she’s had. But she’s also wonderfully funny, too. We didn’t want to make a tear-jerky film. The great thing about Susie is that she doesn’t feel any self pity. She’s got these wonderfully ironic, wry observations. She watches her family deal with her death; she watches her killer; she watches the police bungle their investigation, which drives her crazy in a very humorous way. And she comes up with a very bad idea of trying to use her father as a weapon against the killer.
You have this degree of freedom to create a slightly hallucinogenic experience, but that’s fleeting in the sense that she also witnesses what’s happening. She can see what happens, but she can’t be heard.So she’s very frustrated, and even though there’s this crazy fun that she has for awhile, I would say that the tone of the movie is very much like a thriller.
The Temeraire Series
The Temeraire are a series of books we’ve optioned. I think it’s going to be six books soon. I love the idea of the Napoleonic times, when there was a Navy and an Army, but there’s also an air force, which are these dragon-like creatures. So the British have an air brigade, but the French do, too. You have these great, Napoleonic battles with flying dragons and ships.
I’m thinking about whether it should be some form of miniseries. With six books, I really don’t like the idea of making a big-budget movie of the first book and it not doing well at the box office and suddenly that’s the end of the series. Six books makes such a compelling story that I like the idea of adapting that as a series.
Steven Spielberg has just finished his first cut. I’m actually going to see it when I get home. He did the motion capture for that and directed it, which he was doing for six weeks. Then it comes down to New Zealand, to WETA, because our company is doing the shots. So Steven and I are collaborating on the production of the film and I’m going to keep an eye on the effects shots.
For the second film, I’m keeping my options open at the moment, but I am very partial to the Seven Crystal Balls. I’m going to read them all again. I’ve read them about three times in the past two years, so I’ll do it again and see which one… Everybody who’s working on Tintin is a fan of the story. It was huge in England; it was huge in New Zealand. I grew up with these books. Everyone who’s working on the movie, to some degree, grew up with Tintin. And in Steven’s case, he got turned on to Tintin after Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a very Tintin-esque kind of story.
One of things I’m thinking of is possibly shooting Dambusters in 3-D. I wanted to get my head around the technology, so we got the equipment and shot some material to see how it looked.
IGN is giving away tickets to Peter Jackson’s new sci-fi film.
District 9, from producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp, looks to be one of the coolest movies coming this summer. The tale of mysterious aliens who have landed on Earth and are forced to live in an internment camp has been piquing audiences’ curiosity ever since we first started seeing signs of the viral campaign for the film at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
Now, at Comic-Con 2009, some fortunate IGN readers are going to get the chance to see the film weeks before its release.
We’re giving away 14 pairs of tickets to a special District 9 screening via IGN’s Twitter following — one ticket for the IGN reader and one for his/her guest per pair. Both attendees must be 17 years old or over and will need to show a valid ID at the theater, so don’t bother trying to get tickets if you can’t meet those criteria!
A couple of other things to keep in mind: The ticketholders must be in San Diego already at the time of the screening as IGN is not responsible for anyone’s travel to the event. However, they do not need to be attending Comic-Con in order to see the film as the screening will take place at a theater outside of the convention center.
Speaking of which, the screening itself is happening at the United Artists Horton Plaza 14 at 475 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA at 7pm PST on July 23. You must check-in at the theater no later than 6:30pm PST.
The giveaway will be happening at random times between now and Sunday, so keep following IGN’s Twitter at http://twitter.com/igncom for your chance to see District 9 early!
Release date: Friday August 14, 2009 Genre: Sci-fi Director: Neill Blomkamp Studio: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell Producer(s): Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Kenneth Nkosi, Devlin Brown Official Site:district9movie.com, MNUSpreadsLies.com Rating:This film is not yet rated Available film art:District 9 movie posters
Synopsis District 9 is an upcoming science fiction film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp. The film is set for an August 14, 2009 release date. It takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The teaser trailer for the film was released with X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well as The Year One.