The first trailer for District 9 set the stage for what I would hope was going to be a good science fiction film. You remember, the one with the blurred alien face and no subtitles. That trailer captured my imagination, and then the uncensored version arrived. This version sealed the deal for me. It was not so much the fact the alien's face can be seen, it is the line of questioning and corresponding answers that did it for me.
Combined with the knowledge of where the film was set, the overtones of apartheid, government control, oppression, racism, intolerance, and poverty became hard to ignore. Then the full trailer came and I knew I could not pay any more attention to the viral marketing that was going on around the film's release. I was hyped up enough and did not want to run the risk of spoilage and I really wanted to be at least somewhat fresh going in.
So I sat there in the sold out theater, thinking I was ready for the movie. Then the lights dimmed, and the screen flickered up, first telling us to turn off our cell phones (please remember to do this) then playing a sequence of trailers, none of which I remember. The movie began and for nearly two hours, I was held at attention as District 9 played out in front of me. It was everything I had hoped for and nothing like what I expected. This is a movie that delivers on every level — from fantastic writing, to seamless special effects, to good acting performances, it is one of those rare movies that fails to disappoint.
The first portion of the film is in faux documentary style and goes a long way to setting the stage of this alternate world. We learn that an alien ship has appeared in our atmosphere and drifted to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. The year was 1982. The ship's inhabitants were found malnourished, weak, and confused, with no discernible chain of command. They were shuttled off the ship and placed in a refugee camp called District 9.
For more than 20 years the people of Johannesburg have lived with the aliens. This time has bred contempt between the people and their alien visitors. The government has been attempting to learn about their technology, with little success. A powerful Nigerian gang has set up shop in District 9, trading with them for weaponry. There is always violence surrounding the aliens and the fenced off district. The temporary camp has turned into a slum, home to nearly two million aliens, dubbed prawns due to their crustacean-like appearance.
And then things changed.
It is decided that the growing alien population needs to be moved. The project is led by Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) and to say he is not the smartest guy in the room nor the best prepared to handle the situation would be an understatement. He is a pencil pusher who sort of fell into the position, and being as clueless as he is, he goes right at it. He leads a team into District 9 on a mission to get the prawns to sign consent forms for the relocation project.
This mission goes badly as fighting breaks out and a discovery of some new alien tech is uncovered. This leads to an accident which leaves Wikus getting sprayed in the face with some mysterious fluid. It turns out that the fluid contains alien DNA and that it's an aggressive substance, proceeding to transform our protagonist into some sort of hybrid.
The events of the eviction notification and the start of the transformation lead to an explosive climax that features an all out assault by human forces on District 9. The bullets fly, things explode, and there is a surprisingly high emotional quotient.
District 9 is wonderfully shot; its use of a combination of the documentary and hand-held styles gives it a sense of immediacy. You are right there in the action, every step of the way. Combine this with the flawless effects work and you have a film that is familiar yet looks unlike anything else on the big screen. Seriously, considering what Michael Bay was able to accomplish with Transformers 2, the effects here are all the more impressive. Live action and CG interact and you would never know that CG was involved. The aliens look great and are perfectly blended into the scene.
The acting is spot on; in particular Sharlto Copely as Wikus is very good. You can watch his character change over the course of the film. He does not necessarily get smarter, but he does come to a certain understanding of the situation that he did not have at the start. He is played as a nice guy who just doesn't get it and spends much of his time purely reacting to the immediate situation without thought of consequence or implication. On top of that, the men in charge of the prawns, in particular our main prawn Christopher Johnson (that's right), did a great job of giving them a sense of believability. He comes across as a well-rounded and intelligent character.
Neill Blomkamp makes an assured big screen debut. He handles the high concept with skill and restraint, putting every penny of his $30 million budget on the screen and giving a taste of what his Halo may have been like had it not been back-burnered.
Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have crafted an incredible alternate reality. They have given the story weight, making it a believable alternate world. They tell a great story that digs into what makes us human and examines our ability to commit atrocities on others which is equalled by our ability to ultimately understand and respect. It is all told within a world where not all of the questions are answered. You are given just enough information for the main story to be told, but the background holds so many details and hints that speak to a larger world condition, just waiting to be pieced together, interpreted, and expanded upon by the viewer, not unlike another brilliant film, Children of Men.
Bottom line. This is a movie that floored me. It exceeded all of my expectations and then some. It is written with an intelligence not often seen in summer releases, and is executed by a man of vision who knows what he wants to tell and what he wants to show. District 9 displays technical mastery alongside a great tale told with intelligence and emotion. This movie engages the viewer on every level and deserves to be seen on the big screen.