Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on January 5th, 2010
“To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg. The doors didn’t open for months. Nobody could get in. They eventually decided, after much deliberation, that the best thing to do would be to physically cut their way in. We were on the verge of first contact. The whole world was watching, expecting, I don’t know, music from Heaven and bright shining lights…”
It all started when Peter Jackson’s long anticipated Halo project went belly up. You might recall it was that project which had Jackson deferring directorial duties on the upcoming Hobbit films, electing to act as producer instead. But Halo didn’t happen. Jackson was in search of an ambitious project to fill the void. Enter Neil Blomkamp, a native of South Africa, who had come up with the basic imagery for District 9. A short film was the end result, but it would be far from the end for the idea. Blomkamp incorporated his own firsthand experiences as a boy living in the infamous days of South Africa’s apartheid. It’s completely impossible to see this film in any other light than an allegory to that era. Teaming together, Jackson and Blomkamp have taken these very basic ideas that were at best loosely held together by the concept and worked them into the most provocative science fiction film of the last decade.
“The creatures were extremely malnourished. They were very unhealthy. They seemed to be aimless. There was a lot of international pressure on us at the time. The entire world was looking at Johannesburg. So, we had to do the right thing…”
District 9 opens very much like a documentary. The shooting style and improvisational performances of the cast all work effectively to create a convincing documentary atmosphere. In these earlier moments, we are brought up to speed on the history of the spacecraft’s arrival. The craft appeared in 1982 and has by now been hovering over the city for over 20 years. We learn that the multinational corporation MNU has been given full responsibility over the aliens. They are charged with maintaining them, mostly keeping them out of trouble. In return they have been granted the exclusive rights to any technology that can be salvaged from the aliens or their ship. The aliens came with a wide arsenal of weapons that look and act like they were created by the imaginative folks at Insomniac for their popular Ratchet And Clank video game franchise. The weapons have been, as far, useless, since only someone with the alien DNA can activate the devices. In these pieces we learn that the aliens have been living in the shanty town that District 9 has become. The citizens, however, have grown tired and frightened by the existence of the slum area. Aliens can be seen scavenging through garbage. It doesn’t help that they look rather insect-like and might remind the human population of roaches. There is growing concern over the possible spread of disease and even aggression from the physically stronger “prawns”, a derogatory term that has come into common usage among the humans. The footage paints a bleak picture of xenophobia and prejudice.
“The government established an aid group that started to ferry the aliens to a temporary camp that was set up just beneath the ship. We didn’t have a plan. There was a million of them, so what was a temporary holding zone soon became fenced, became militarized, and before we knew it, it was a slum. But the truth is no one really knew what the plan was. There’s a lot of secrets in District 9.”
The MNU has decided that something must be done. There have been violent confrontations and deaths on both sides. They decide the aliens must be evicted from District 9 and relocated to a more remote location that will be designated as District 10. The eviction process is being spearheaded by MNU executive Wikus van der Merwe (Copley). The initial documentary style footage portrays Wikus as an over the top gung ho cretin with a rather warped sense of humor. In one scene “population control” has arrived to set fire to a nest of baby prawns. As the babies are being incinerated, Wikus laughs and jokes about how the “popping” sound you hear sounds a lot like popcorn. If you didn’t know any better, you could swear you were watching a Sacha Cohen character. The point is made, and we certainly feel the requisite contempt for Wikus.
That contempt will be necessary when District 9 enters its second stage. During one of these evictions, Wikus is exposed to a fuel cell liquid that begins to alter his body radically. Starting with a claw arm, he appears to metamorphose into one of the aliens. He immediately begins to experience the treatment he so gleefully dished out when his own team attempts to harvest his body parts for study, particularly his ability to engage alien weapons. Wikus escapes and makes his way back to District 9, this time the hunted rather than the hunter. He befriends the prawn from whom he confiscated the fuel cell, and the two engage on a mission to retrieve it from MNU headquarters. It’s the only chance Wikus has of returning to normal and the prawn’s chance to return home. Here the film begins to take on a more traditional filming style. There are still intercuts of documentary footage, and plenty of the scenes are captured by various surveillance cameras.
From any simple description of District 9, one can’t help but be reminded of the film and subsequent television series, Alien Nation. Both involve a ship of refugees that arrive on Earth only to experience prejudice and discrimination. Both efforts deal with the complicated social issues that such an event would likely cause. Even the opening docu-style pieces are quite similar. But before long it becomes quite clear that this is not a retelling of Alien Nation. These aliens are far from humanoid and are delivered through a complicated motion capture and CGI process. The results are impressive to say the least. Everything from behavior to skin textures is perfectly rendered to bring us a convincing creature. It’s so important that we very quickly feel convinced, because the message will be completely lost if we fail to identify with the prawn very early on. They must have sentience, and more importantly, they must have feelings, or all is lost. You really have to hand it to the f/x team here for delivering the goods. What is even more amazing is that they did so on a modest $30 million budget. The effort was quickly rewarded when District 9 made back more than its budget in the first 2 days of release. Eventually it would rake in a solid $200 million worldwide.
At first I was a bit worried that the movie was going to be too much like those trendy shaky camera films that have become the rage since Blair Witch took the world by surprise. Thankfully, most of the documentary style filming combines just the right level of realism and professionalism. I don’t recall getting any dizzy spells watching the film. The next concern was how well the two distinct styles would meld into a single film. We’re not so used to going back and forth between this style and more traditional shooting. I’m pleased to report that they blend effortlessly. My only real complaint is that Wikus is too far off the wall when we first meet him. He’s just too much a caricature and not at all convincing. Copley begins to become far more convincing when he’s no longer supposed to be mugging for the cameras and begins his changes. For me, that’s when District 9 truly takes off. Copley’s performance goes from comic to tragic, and the real performance begins. You soon forget about crazy Wikus and begin to relate to transforming Wikus, as he must confront the same attitudes he has shown the aliens in his career. His physical transformation is eerily reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly remake. Even down to the fingernail peel that began Goldblum’s transformation. Copley goes from one of the worst portrayals I’ve seen to one of the best in just the blink of an eye.
Of course, a lot has been made of the fact that the movie was largely improvisational. The script was merely a guidepost with the important story elements and beats. This could have been a disaster and often has been for films in the past. It’s an ambitious style, but it works just perfectly here.
You also can’t ignore the obvious South Africa settings and history. There’s no question that Blomkamp is exorcising some demons from his childhood here. The location is no accident. But it’s not just the history that is important in the locations. It’s the locations themselves. The shacks of the shantytown look right to us. It all looks so real that the overall effect only strengthens the way we look at the aliens and end up accepting that they are real. There might have been a lot of improv here, but there is no question at all that a ton of thought went into every detail in this movie. Still, credit everyone involved for not letting the message get out of control. The film moves you without having to appear as though it’s preaching to you. The emotions come because they are genuine. It’s how you feel, not how you’re told to feel. Blomkamp presents you with the images and trusts our own human nature to take over from there. Good for him.
District 9 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 26 mbps. You have to first understand that even in this high definition release, much of the film isn’t intended to look beautiful. The fact is we are supposed to believe that this footage was taken on the fly and not under prime conditions. Still, the picture is clear, and the sharpness manages to break through the style and deliver a truly visceral experience. The alien textures are impressive, as are the levels of detail in these sets and locations. Colors are intentionally bleak but always realistic. Black levels are excellent, and you will experience some wonderful shadow definition and detail.
The DTS-HD Master audio is also very nicely done. Even under these conditions surrounds are put to good use, and the natural quality of the project is captured. There isn’t really a score, so there are nearly silent moments that work to great effect in focusing our attention on the nuances on the screen. The alien language is a series of clicks and grunts that appear very realistic in the overall soundscape. Everything is crystal clear. You can’t be disappointed in an audio presentation that renders such an immersive experience.
There is an Audio Commentary with Neil Blomkamp. His own personal attachment to both the film and subject come through quite effectively when he speaks. There is a lot of passion for the project, and he delivers one of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while.
In the beginning you’ll be asked to choose from a human or alien avatar. This will determine the menu theme you will get.
There is a DVD copy of the film, which also incorporates a Digital Copy, as well. All of the extras here are in HD.
Interactive Map: You can scroll around a map of the district as well as other locations. Clicking on certain areas provides you with some information about the area.
Deleted Scenes: (23:28) There are a whopping 22 scenes in all that you can play individually or through the handy play all option. There is an annoying copyright notice after every one of the scenes. Most of this is additional documentary footage. Not all of the f/x are finished. You’ll get to see Jason Cope acting the alien parts in his grey motion capture suit.
The Alien Agenda – A Filmmaker’s Journey: (34:19) This feature comes in three chapters (Envisioning District 9, Shooting District 9, and Refining District 9). You can use a handy dandy play all option. I did. The cast and crew cover it all here, spending a lot of time on the origins of the idea. There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage. There’s a humorous piece where Copley is trying to scoop up his lunch pasta with his alien claw hand.
Metamorphosis – The Transformation Of Wikus: (9:52) This one covers all of those incredible makeup f/x. You get to see a lot of the applications and plenty of the stages of infection.
Innovation – Acting And Improvisation: (12:05) Tons of behind the scenes stuff looking at the various styles incorporated into the final picture. Everything from dialog to staging to camera locations was often improvised during the shoot.
Conception and Design – Creating The World Of District 9: (13:18) Here you’ll see early versions of the designs. Plenty of pre-viz and conceptual art to be found here. You’ll get to spend some time with Jason Cope, the man in the motion capture suite who played the aliens.
Alien Generation – The Visual Effects: (10:18) Just as you might expect, this one deals with production design. The sounds of the aliens are explored here as well.
At first I was a little disappointed in District 9. I expected Alien Nation, or something along those lines. The docu-style shooting took me a bit by surprise, and so I was heading, or so I thought, to disappointment. Somewhere along the way my expectations shifted, and the film only got better the longer it ran. I can’t tell you exactly when the change occurred, only that by the time it was over I wanted to see it again. It actually is one of those films that plays much better the second time. It’s definitely a repeat viewing experience. Don’t rent it. You’re going to want to see it again. The ending sets up for the absolutely required sequel. So many threads were left unresolved. This is very much one of those setup films. I’m ready for more already. “Everybody wants to know what’s going to happen next.”