District 9 just goes to prove that you can make a sci-fi film that is both good food for thought as well as plain old entertainment. There's plenty doses of each to satisfy both types of audiences, and strikes the balance well without it feeling like two separate movie's fighting for screen time. There was a lot of skepticism around first-time director Neill Blomkamp, but any doubts anyone had about the man can now be officially wiped away. Blomkamp has created one of the best début movies I've ever seen.
A mysterious alien ship appears in the sky, hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa, with no apparent reason for doing so. People are obviously puzzled by this, but after much deliberation humans forcefully make their way onto the alien spacecraft only to uncover a population of aliens inside. The humans decide to ferry them down to earth, and keep them in a "temporary" area ghetto-like area. Now, 20 years later, the humans no longer welcome the aliens (nicknamed "The Prawns" because of their distinct appearance), with the ghetto area now like a slum and referred to as "District 9."
A government organization called MNU (Multi-National United) is contracted to move The Prawns to a "better" type of camp. Sent into District 9 to serve eviction notices to the aliens is Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who receives a less than welcome answer from them. While searching The Prawns' shelter's, Wikus is accidentally exposed to some sort of alien chemical, and soon he begins to feel the bodily effects of it.
District 9 works on several levels: There's the obvious political and humanistic angles dealing with refugees, segregation, mistreatment of civilians, discrimination and any other number of things. For those looking for a bit of meat to go with their dessert, District 9 very much provides that. This isn't just mindless entertainment to pass a couple of hours, this is a film that actually has something to say, and it just so happens to be within a genre normally associated with full-on action, done by the likes of Ridley Scott or even Michael Bay.
However, the film also works on a pure entertainment level. There's plenty of gunfire, explosions and chasing (both car and foot) going on to satisfy anyone who may have sought out the movie based on the advertisements which (understandably) play up those aspects. But this isn't Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen where everything else is sacrificed just so that a giant robot can destroy a car or punch a fellow robot. As stated, there's much more than that going on here, but nonetheless it still doesn't lack in the action department.
The film is rather peculiar and unique in how it's made up. It's a big, complicated mix of normal narrative storytelling, documentary footage (some real, some fictional, I believe) and in-camera work (ala Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project) that works rather well in the end. At first it's a bit suspect when you're mind is used to either being one or the other (at first I was thinking, "How are we able to see that if a camera's not actually supposed to be there?"), but when it settles it really adds to the whole thing, setting it apart from most other movies of its type.
I've read other people complaining about the fact that apart from the main character, we don't really get to care about any of the human characters. And to a certain degree I concur with that – most are there just to further the story, without really being rounded into fully dimensional characters we can care about. Blomkamp actually managed to make us care about the CGI-created aliens than most of the human characters. Maybe that was the point.
But the reason that didn't bother me all that much is the fact that it's supposed to be a story about one man's struggle against the people he once called family, friends and fellow human beings. We follow Wikus for the majority of the movie, and with the help of strong characterisation and a terrific first-time performance from Sharlto Copley (the only billing he has previous to this is as "Sniper" in Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp's short film that inspired this), we really grow to care about the guy and are on his side all of the time. That's very important for what is, at least partially, a "man on the run" story.
As with most films that raise questions, there were many that straight after seeing it I thought were left a little too ambiguous. But after giving them much thought (with this type of film it's best to give it a few days to mull over before formulating your thoughts on it) – such as why the alien ship was even on earth to begin with – the answers, or at least possible answers, became clear. That's another thing, this isn't just a film you spend a couple of hours on and then forget about it straight after. It really stays with you and makes you ponder it long after the credits have rolled.
One of the things that sets District 9 apart is it switches gears from what we're used to. Most movies dealing with humans encountering extraterrestrials, the question and theme of them is always what would they do to us? What threat to they pose to the human species? However, District 9 asks what we would do to them? What threat do we pose to them? It seems a rather obvious question, but not one I've seen tackled before. And it's fascinating to watch how things might (or even, probably would) play out.
The reported budget for District 9 was a fairly small (in movie budget terms) $30 million, but that's not in any way apparent from the quite magnificent special effects on full display. From the Prawns themselves (who are most impressive looking when they're sporadically standing around, scouring for food amongst the rubbish) to some of the machines that are introduced towards the end of the film, the special effects are quite superb. Summer's 2009 noisy, gargantuan-sized Transformers 2 had a budget of almost seven times the size of this – this just goes to show you that you don't need that huge amount of money to have amazing special effects.
Producing District 9 is Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, who has had Blomkamp tapped to direct the live-action Halo movie that's been on-and-off for a while. But apart from him, pretty much everyone, including director Blomkamp, will be unknown to most audiences and that helps the proceedings. Had it been Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp headlining the cast, for example, I feel it would have been distracting, especially with such a (despite it's ambitious) up-close-and-personal sci-fi story.
District 9 looked promising from the very get-go, with its strange and intriguing marketing campaign ("For Humans Only"), to its ambitious and resonating plot. But I honestly didn't expect it to be this good. Particularly for a first-time director (who's got commercial and short film directing experience), this is impressive stuff: Despite not being absolutely perfect, this is still exciting, engaging and fascinating with an equal mix of extremely enjoyable action and intelligence to satisfy a wide range of audiences. Brilliant.