(Long Island, N.Y.) Finally…in a summer filled with sequels, remakes and retreads, we
actually have a truly original and off-beat film. District 9 is a science fiction flick headed up by first-time director Neill Blomkamp and
produced by Mr. Lord of the Rings himself, Peter Jackson. It stars all relative unknowns, is fairly low-budget (what are we coming to when a $30 million movie is considered “low-budget”…?), and features a rather unorthodox plot. It has none of the trappings of the typical summer blockbuster movie, but nonetheless dethroned reigning box-office champ G.I. Joe from the number one spot this past weekend. Considering that G.I. Joe is a primary example of the bland, soulless rut that Hollywood is wallowing in, I smiled inwardly at the news.
In a unusual departure from my normal way of reviewing movies, I’m not going to divulge too much about the plot of District 9. Why? Well, mainly because it’s more than likely NOT the movie you’re expecting it to be, and I’d like to preserve that mystery if at all possible. From the distinctive underground and viral advertising campaign, you’re more than likely thinking that District 9 is a modern re-telling of the old Alien Nation movie and TV show, but you’d be way
off the mark for thinking that. Yes, they do have some basics in common: both movies deal with an alien vessel appearing on Earth containing refugees who are then forced to live here, fueling prejudice and mistrust. But that’s where the similarities end. This film is not really about the aliens struggle to live and fit into our society- its more of a compelling character drama with a neat sci-fi backdrop.
District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, former home of the anti-black apartheid movement instigated by the previous ruling white government (which makes the events of this film quite ironic). Twenty years before, an alien ship mysteriously appeared in the sky, filled with extraterrestrial creatures resembling walking cockroaches. The peaceful “non-humans” (eerily reminiscent of the term “non-white” used during the apartheid era), whose ship is missing its command module and are sadly unable to leave, are rounded up and segregated in a camp called District 9, an run-down ghetto run by Multi-National United (MNU).
MNU is a weapons research company that would just looove to figure out how to use the alien’s advanced bio-technology, and they finally get that chance when Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, who’s shockingly never acted before in his life), one of their operatives assigned with moving the non-humans to a new District 10, is infected with alien DNA (hmm…that sounds dirty, but it’s not what you think!) after an accident. Since the aliens’ technology is partly organic, Wikus’ new non-human bits enable him to utilize alien weapons that normal humans can’t. Of
course, Wikus suddenly becomes of very great interest to many parties, and to avoid unpleasant outcomes such as dissection and experimentation, he goes on the lam in the very slum he was originally tasked with relocating, making the unlikeliest of allies there. What happens next is something you’ll have to see for yourself, but rest assured, there’s plenty of action and intrigue, in addition to lots of things that go ‘boom.’
District 9 is an excellent film. It’s not the movie of
the year like many are hailing it (the last act awkwardly abandons the story somewhat in favor of a surprising amount of action instead), but it’s still head and shoulders above pretty much any major studio release this summer. Neill Blomkamp’s documentary-style approach of the film’s style is very engrossing, and despite the aforementioned “measly” $30 mil budget, District 9 never looks low-rent. The “non-humans” are all CG, but never look low-quality or out of place in the live-action shots- apparently the production team did plenty of research into what type of looks blend and look more realistic given the run-down settings of the film, and their homework paid off. Later in the film we are treated to intense combat scenes involving humans and advanced alien battle suits and again, the physical and special effects work holds up nicely. It’s impressive how $30 million in one director’s hands can look like $150 million, and vice versa.
And despite the cast of unknowns, the acting of District 9 is never called into question- everyone is solid across the board. The events of District 9 are portrayed in a gritty and realistic way, which helps to pull you into this interesting world all the more effectively. I’ve often found that the best science fiction films focus less on the wacky tech and goofy futuristic buzzwords and more on the people themselves, who are usually the one unchanging thing in a world in constant flux. Character is key in any movie above anything else, and Distinct 9 is a film that realizes this.
So, if you’ve been wallowing through the cinematic dreck that this summer has been offering so far and are desperately looking for relief, it’s finally here. District 9 is intense, original, and engrossing. And you really don’t have to be a fan of science fiction to get into it, either. You just have to be a fan of good movies, and it’s cool to see that one can occasionally get made. How something this left-of-center ever managed to get made without some Hollywood studio getting involved and changing the characters into giant bazooka-wielding robots, pink space bunnies, or Playboy-caliber centerfolds, I’ll never guess. But let’s just hope that more directors are just allowed to run amok in the future without having to answer to Big Brother. Being allowed to take chances on unproven concepts- that’s the only way you get anything fresh and new.