It's not everyday for a new filmmaker that one gets a renowned, establish peer admire your work enough to invest 30 million dollars in your feature film. What does one do with that kind of money? Make the most inventive film that one can of course, and District 9 cements itself as a contemporary classic, totally inventive and a definite breath of fresh air that puts all the recent mind-numbing, overblown big-budgeted same ol' hollow blockbusters all to shame with superb visuals and an excellent story that doesn't insult your intelligence.
South African director Neill Blomkamp, who co-wrote this film with Terri Tatchell, and an extension to his short film Alive in Joburg, will be someone on my radar for this thrilling roller coaster ride that blew my expectations many times over with its concept and slick delivery of an action piece with plenty of social commentary about the negative human conditions that easily plague the best of us, especially when it comes to self-preservation where we are likely to go on autopilot to ensure our interests and survival over and above others. Not forgetting too that the aliens portrayed here are rather peace loving, perfectly fine with living within the confines of their assigned territory and not take advantage of their weapons, to say, take over our world.
For someone who had grown up during the apartheid, it is easy to notice how Blomkamp had included elements of those conditions into his narrative. From a bigger picture perspective as well, the extreme negativity in humanity's flaws stemming from fear, also got itself a place in its criticism, which Blomkamp intelligently crafted into the underlying narrative passage. We fear the unknown and what we do not know, and often name-call others whom we don't understand just to stand on a perceived moral high ground, as well as constantly looking for avenues to exploit any situation for money or power.
As a concept though, Blomkamp adopted from the best of science fiction, and put them all together in an eclectic mix containing the best of the best. One can't deny that homage to The Fly, where a character through his own complacent doing, gets to see himself turn into something he despise initially. Then there's this overgrown conglomerate in MNU (someone say OCP?) which has its finger in many pies, such as the provision of security contractors and mercenaries and interests in high-tech weaponry, with corrupt bosses who would sell out their own children to make that extra penny.
But what I felt to me was familiar ground in the setting up of its basic introductory premise, is that of the 1988 film Alien Nation. In that film, USA got visited by a mega spaceship which hovered in the air, and as my memory of the story goes, the aliens on the ship, slaves in their own planet, got welcomed to live on Earth and integrate with everyone, quite unlike the segregation in District 9. The Newcomers have a penchant for fanciful names which give rise to some comedy, and while they don't boast powerful weapons, they are in many ways stronger in intellect and in physical aspects than the average human, which allows for fear and prejudicial behaviour towards the new citizens of Earth.
The distrust in District 9 is more pronounced of course, which consists of setting up concentration camps within which the aliens are forced to live in. Sharlto Copley stars as Wikus, a newly promoted employee of MNU (and son-in-law to the company's head honcho) to take charge of evicting the aliens from their current District 9 compound, to a supposedly better District 10 hundreds of miles away from Johannesburg, where the city folks are getting increasingly frustrated in their attempts to move the aliens out of their backyard. Excited by his appointment, we follow Wikus around in the first act, which is about something similar to the original short film in treatment, providing the basis in which we learn more of their environment the characters all operate within, with interesting nuggets thrown up that is testament to a science fiction world carefully created.
This documentary feel soon dissolved into an action-adventure that's pretty much expected, if not for how the story made you feel for Wikus as a hunted man desperate to escape from the clutches of scientists and board room stiffs who see him not as a human, but as a commodity to be mined for research and weaponization. And it is in this desperation that perhaps a sliver of hope and humanity could arise from his rather arrogant yet timid outlook and self, which Copley portrayed with the experience akin to a veteran thespian, shuttling between various emotions over a wide spectrum.
In fact, Copley's performance provided that extra push almost single-handedly in engaging you to the character and the premise that Fate has thrown him into, as we journey with him on a strange ride involving the symbiotic relationship he has to strike up with one of the "Prawns", and through this interaction which involves everything from family to an eye-popping, edge of your seat action sequence that seem to continuously top its own earlier scenes as it charges toward the finale, we see the change in Wikus from despair, to one coming to grips with, and eventually learning to respect differences. Like Alien Nation's cops of different cultures who learn to compromise and even fight for each other, District 9 also evokes those same sentiments, which Copley aces perfectly.
Adopting the kind of Cloverfield and [REC] concept as well with the fourth wall periodically broken, I thought the cinematography here was extremely subtle in its transition to and from that documentary feel of unsteady cam, to the steady tripod shots for the more traditional capture of big action up close. WETA is responsible for the wonderful looking creature and technological designs, and once again proves itself as a premier effects and creature creator.
District 9 brings plenty of fresh perspectives, narrative maturity and teaches contemporary filmmakers a thing or two about shooting exciting action sequences, building of tension, and just about what makes a film so awesome that it just begs for a rewatch. Definitely highly recommended stuff that you cannot afford to miss, and if you're planning to view just one film in this noisy blockbuster season, then look no further than Districct 9, which gets my vote as one of the worthy favourites of the year!
Alive in Joburg