Billy Soistmann

Review: District 9

In Reviews, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on August 14, 2009 at 3:19 AM

I had been looking forward to this film for a long while – longer than most people even knew about the movie. After reading the premise almost a year ago, I watched Alive in Joburg, the short film that is the basis for the feature. I was thoroughly impressed and wanted more. Well, now I’ve seen it. I really enjoyed it and thought it was a very good film. It has its flaws, of course, but I was not disappointed.

In the world of the movie, an alien mothership settled over Johannesburg around two decades ago and has been sitting there ever since. The aliens that were found aboard were in horrible conditions so they were moved onto the ground into “District 9” which has degenerated into a slum. Relations between the prawns, as they are called, and the humans are tense. This basic premise is obviously a critique on the apartheid system of racial segregation that was in effect in South Africa until 1994. However, this social commentary takes a back seat to the real story – the story of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat in charge of overseeing the relocation of the prawns into another camp.

The movie starts off as basically a documentary, complete with interviews with experts and ordinary people. The best use of this documentary feel is when the humans make first contact with the aliens. This is shown through fuzzy archival footage from inside the ship and works beautifully. The film does lose most of its documentary feel, but the cinema-verite style of a handheld camera continues. I really enjoyed this fresh way of shooting. It really gave the film a raw quality that helped bring these aliens into the real world. I did notice, however, that towards the end the style got closer to a polished look. It never quite got there, the camera continued to shake, but the feeling that you were right there in the middle of it all died down a bit. The end fell back on the documentary aspect to tie things up, even including some text at the end of the movie. Overall, this was a very promising feature debut from Neill Blomkamp and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Those who complain that the movie didn’t focus enough on the prejudice against the aliens have a point, but I liked the way the movie went. Instead of making a documentary about the social injustice during the apartheid years, the film focused on a single character. This gave it narrative structure that could hold up for almost two hours. I felt that the story found a nice balance between social commentary and action, although the climax felt a little too much like a traditional popcorn action flick. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they watered-down the true heart of the film for mainstream audiences, but the filmmakers definitely chose not to force the message of the film down the audience’s throat. My favorite point made in the movie is when a young Nigerian says something to the effect of, “We only hate them because they’re alien – they are from another planet, if they were human we wouldn’t treat them this way.” Of course, in the real world we see how we only wish this statement could be true.

The script was excellent. As soon as Wikus starts to discover what is happening to him, the movie flows beautifully. Rather than having distinct scenes, the story constantly moves forward. Also, Wikus learns a lot through the course of the movie and changes for the better. This is a key for any good character-driven piece: the character must grow. Speaking of Wikus, Sharlto Copley is fantastic. I would have never guessed that this is his feature film debut. His character goes through a lot in the film and Copley portrays his journey excellently. Relying on a non-actor to drive the entire movie was a huge risk that payed off in the end.

The special effects, while not the best, fit in with the rest of the movie, which is all they had to do. The director showed his skill at blending real environments with CGI once again. By showing these obviously fictitious aliens through his handheld, constantly shifting camera, Blomkamp takes us into this world and makes us believe in it, despite any logical problems with the aliens.

So, while the story was not what I was expecting, District 9 paid off in the end. The film consistently amazed me with its style while still telling the story a man forced out of his element. Most importantly, though, the movie delivered fantastic images. For example, the ominous mothership sitting above the city was a constant reminder that this world portrayed in the movie was not entirely like ours.

I really enjoyed this film. It provides a compelling story, told through fresh cinematography, with a great performance. All of this combined with undertones of racial prejudice and social commentary on the apartheid that isn’t too overbearing makes for a thoroughly compelling, entertaining, and thoughtful film. District 9 feels like a breath of fresh air during this generally disappointing summer.

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