Apartheid and an original idea. Those are two thoughts that have peppered every review of this movie I've read. So I'm putting them right up top, and will avoid using them for the duration. This doesn't mean they're incorrect, but Cinemablend knows where to lay dead horses down. Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is so far from what I understood it to be when the viral marketing started. I thought the aliens were the enemy. But not after watching. If I still thought they were the enemy after watching, I think the movie implies that I would be a bad person. An exciting sci-fi romp with a bleak and darkly comedic subtext, District 9 utilizes multi-million dollar minimalism to tell a tale of xenophobic redemption. Or something.
In setting alone, this movie gets a thumbs up for moving beyond our own country's tired tales of alien visitations. No New York or D.C. No backwoods southern plantations. The film opens with expository interview and news footage explaining how an alien mothership stranded itself above Johannesburg, South Africa (the director and stars' homeland, hence the location). A load of intelligent aliens are found aboard and are soon rounded up into a large camp called District 9. Think camp like Kamp Krusty. Horrible living conditions, heavy police presence, and scare tactics are the norm, and the local human population soon calls for the entire group to be moved to a new camp, District 10 (durr), far outside of town. Sharlto Copley brilliantly improvises his portrayal of Wikus Van De Merwe, an operative for Multinational United (MNU), the group put in charge of the move. Koobus Venter (David James) leads the military effort, and he's a hardass who eventually becomes an antagonist.
Things start with a team documenting the goings on via cameraman, so things have that "genuine" edge, before the plot thickens and third-person angles are used. I can't wait for the "shaky cam + speaking to the camera = the only way to signify reality" trend to fade away. It's done well here, but I'm just saying. Much attention is focused on treating the obvious science fiction elements as everyday scenery, leaving details in the background or out of focus. It was another effective element setting it somewhat apart from stereotypical blockbusters. The aliens are humanoid for human psychology's sake, to garner sympathy for their treatment. It's really good CGI, too, for being so detailed and icky looking. They filmed in actual slums that were abandoned, so the locations are amazing. If it sounds like I'm gushing, it's truly because of the relatively low budget, and how convincing and engaging everything looks. I'm frugal at heart.
So, what's the story that fills this pretty picture? Well, a lot of E.T. hate. Wikus walks around with his silly mustache, making aliens sign their own eviction notices. Radicals are not given a second thought, and guns blaze. He happens to stumble upon the hut of Christopher Johnson, an alien responsible for painstakingly getting together enough of this black fluid that will invigorate the ship and create an escape for the put-upon race. After some light detective work, Wikus manages to get the liquid into his system and begins to undergo dramatic changes. Picture Cronenberg's The Fly if Jeff Goldblum had only reached inside the pod during the transformation. His large alien appendage makes him a hot commodity to both the military and a arms-dealing Nigerian gang, who sell captured alien weaponry (which can only be used by alien biology) to rebellious aliens. Wikus and Christopher Johnson form a bond, and the thrills ensue. Wikus is on the run from everyone, even though he needs everyone's help. Some super-technology comes into play, making for an enjoyable climax that doesn't stray so unbelievably far that it takes you out. It's sort of emotional. It's sort of RoboCop. CB's Josh Tyler called it out for being a rip-off of Alien Nation. I think it takes many things from assorted 1980s sci-fi fare, with a plot that mimics an actual global crisis. Worse movies have gotten more credit for being far less original. Damn, I used that word. Apartheid. Dammit. I'm losing it.
District 9 doesn't have much going against it. The extra mile isn't reached, however. The camerawork and self-aware plot are above par, but if you set the movie in New Orleans, where the politics become something else entirely, the story essentially doesn't become anything more than one man learning sympathy for a shunned section of life, by becoming infected with that person's way of being. That's reading into it too deeply and too shallowly at the same time. Which is what was going on in my head as I watched District 9. It felt deeper than it was. I think I wanted some relationships between characters. There is some of that. Christopher Johnson has a child. That doesn't count, though, because there weren't any meaningful conversations with the kid. Wikus is a great character, but he doesn't have much to interact with on a wholly personal level. Maybe that'll happen in Blomkamp's next picture. I know I'll be watching.
I got the single-disc edition, but it has all the basics needed. There's an entertaining commentary from the director that gives loads of insight to the concept and creation of the flick. Never in my life would I have guessed that Copley had never starred in a movie before. He brought complete conviction to the role. I learned a bit about filming in South Africa, as well. Give it a listen.
There are some decent deleted scenes that add some texture to the story. The behind-the-scenes aspect is parceled out in a three-part documentary, "The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log." It follows the sequential order of making a movie, and fills in all the making-of aspects that the commentary didn't cover, accompanied by plenty of worthwhile footage. I could say more about it, because it lasts about an hour, but it's just a really good feature. There you go. The same goes for District 9 itself. It was a riot to watch, but doesn't leave much of a mental residue, besides remembering to tell like-minded friends to check it out as soon as they can. I suppose that's the victory. It wasn't even a human or an alien thing at all.