The summer of 2009 at the box office has been like a Christmas in which we received nothing but sweaters and socks. Every week, a new, nicely festooned package was trotted out at the box office, holding a promise of something magical to be found inside.
And every week, we were underwhelmed with just how ordinary the contents were. Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2, Land of the Lost, Year One – the list of disappointments seems endless.
But like some last-minute Santa, Peter Jackson and his little elf by the name of Neill Blomkamp have delivered us District 9, effectively saving the season from being a complete wash.
Equally rousing and resonant, District 9 is a film that will likely earn a spot in science-fiction's top tier (working as a sociopolitical snapshot of the times) and is a testament to the power of superlative writing over the budgetary bloat of the pre-ordained “blockbusters.”
Made for a measly (by Hollywood standards) $30 million, and created out of the ashes of a failed film deal, District 9 is a message movie without pulpit-like preaching and an action film without pandering to the ADHD target audience.
Acting neophyte Sharlto Copley plays Wilkus van der Merwe, a paper pusher for MNU (Multi National United), which oversees a colony of aliens that descended to Earth from a stalled spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa.
Wilkus is quite an interesting lead to follow. First presented to us (through video interviews) as a spirited drone who is charged with relocating aliens to a more organized camp, as their current conditions have graduated from slums to compost heap. As he travels door to door evicting the aliens, you can witness him gradually becoming drunk on his power and responsibility. He simultaneously begins to develop something of a conscience, displaying empathy for these crustaceous creatures (who are derogatorily – if not suitably – referred to as “prawns”). Of course, massive relocation of a population does not go as easily as planned, but perhaps not in ways audiences would expect.
But, as engrossing as he human character arc is in District 9, its true punch lies within its technological integration and its urgently staged action sequences.
Every time the humans and aliens interact, it's like a swift kick to the digitized stones of obscenely budgeted films like Transformers, for on its tiny budget it weaves the live action and CGI without a seam to be seen. This is especially important during one of Blomkamp's many pulse-quickening, palpable confrontations expertly placed throughout and weaponry capable of reducing its targets to Jello.
Everything unfolds in a fundamental manner, with fluid cause and effect that adds to the overall documentary-style of filmmaking on display. It injects a sense of overall dread, keeping the audience just slightly off balance.
Much has been made of the film's allegorical view of the apartheid conditions in South Africa, where the director grew up. While it is certainly influential, it is by no means literal. For the alien race is a civilization unto itself, and one that is left completely displaced and without any proper leadership or resources to flourish on its own. Blomkamp then puts it all under a microscope and lets us watch the results.
It's an experiment that pays off in spades, as we feel we are witness to something utterly strange and special – like an indie film trapped in a blockbuster's body. District 9 will be director Blomkamp's Memento, the film that launched visionary Christopher Nolan into the mainstream where he reinvented the superhero genre with Batman Begins.
And when we look back at the tattered paper and bows left strewn about at summer's end, we can look to District 9 and say,”Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”