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Posts Tagged ‘District 9’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 17th September 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that brings a new meaning to the words ‘semi-regular’. We still have a couple of years to wait before Christmas is Tolkien time again, but there’s still ample proof of the talent and good judgement of Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films around in the form of Neill Blomkamp’s remarkable District 9. (Apparently Blomkamp was at a loose end one day when Jackson turned up and said ‘Here’s 30 million dollars, mate, do whatever you like with it.’ If you’re reading this, Pete, my address is…)

Set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, this is an ambitious and startling SF movie. The premise is that the world changed forever in the early 1980s when a vast alien starship suddenly appeared in the sky above Johannesburg. Upon boarding the ship, the authorities discovered it contained only malnourished and apparently dim-witted giant insects. The aliens (nicknamed ‘Prawns’ by the humans) were relocated to a holding camp in the city (the ‘District 9’ of the title), which rapidly turned into a slum as the visitors became a fact of life in the city. Now, many years later, the humans have become sick of the presence of the aliens in their midst and are planning to relocate them to a new camp many kilometres away. The corporation charged with overseeing their eviction is preparing to move in, with field operations supposedly the responsibility of well-meaning administrator Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). However, some of the aliens have their own relocation plans, and this will have a life-changing effect on Wikus and those around him…

My first impression on seeing the trailers for this movie was that it looked extremely technically proficient in its blending of documentary-style camerawork and extensive use of CGI, but that the central idea was… well, it’s not a million light-years away from the back-story to Alien Nation, even down to the aliens being given vaguely absurd human names, while the social commentary (the South African government treats the inhabitants of slums and townships as if they aren’t even human) had the potential to be even less subtle than that in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Yes, these are issues unlikely to trouble the average multiplex habitué, and yes, I have probably spent too much time watching old science fiction movies, but happily, the movie itself only uses this scenario as a launchpad for an accomplished mixture of action, drama, and black comedy.

To start with the thing it most closely resembles is a jet-black and slightly surreal version of The Office as the hapless Wikus explains who he is and what his work entails. It’s a testament to the film-makers’ skill that the realisation that while Wikus tries to do his job conscientiously and is fairly decent to his workmates, his job has actually brutalised him to a considerable degree only happens very gradually. He’s actually fairly unsympathetic at this point, which makes the achievement of the rest of the film, where he’s transformed into someone you actually feel for, even a bit of a hero, all the more impressive.

Copley gives a tremendous performance, especially given that this is really his first acting part of any scope (he was a producer before this). On top of that he improvised all his own dialogue in this movie, even if he does use the F-word or some variant of it about 137 times (someone else counted, not me). At this point I was about to say that he can look forward to the fate of all foreigners who give great leading performances in movies from outside the States and UK (namely, to be a given a wacky supporting role in a bad Hollywood action flick), but they’ve beaten me to it: he’s already in talks for the big-screen version of The A-Team. Sigh…

Wikus’ story is at the centre of the film but every bit of it seems to have had the same care and attention to detail spent on it by the director. District 9 and the world around it are wholly believable, in a thoroughly depressing way, from Wikus’ employers, to the mercenaries he has to work alongside (a good performance as their leader from David James), to the Nigerian gangsters who also exploit the Prawns, to the aliens themselves. The effects shot of the alien ship over the city is surely an icon-in-the-making, and if (as I hear tell) $30 million is bargain basement stuff where a movie’s concerned these days, it doesn’t show here. Possibly the most memorable character in the film is an unnamed child Prawn who manages to be effortlessly cute without being twee and while looking like something I’d normally squirt with lemon juice and eat.

The social commentary tract that District 9‘s trailer promised is thankfully kept pretty much in the background, though given the nature of the film it’s pretty much inescapable. It’s hard to accuse a film, the climax of which revolves around a gun battle between heavily-armed mercenaries and a giant death-ray toting mecha, of being too worthy or highbrow, to say nothing of the rather high horror and gore quotient in the course of events.

On paper it looks like the makers of this film have set out to make a film to appeal to the widest possible demographic, with satire, humour, drama, horror, not-too-challenging SF and action all central to the story. And while this is true, I never got the sense that this was done in anything like a calculated way; they just seem to have told a story that they really fell in love with, and done it in the best way they could. The results are highly impressive and Blomkamp and Copley are officially added to the 24LAS list of Guys To Keep An Eye On In Future.

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