I wasn't going to write anything about this movie, but I had a specific request from a reader and decided to indulge him, albeit briefly. I saw District 9 a few weeks ago and I feel like everything that can be said about it has already been said elsewhere, but I'll throw my thoughts into the ring. The very short version? If you dig sci-fi at all, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. If you're not a huge sci-fi person, I'd still recommend it because it works on many levels other than pure science fiction.
Co-Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope
Let me run down the behind-the-scenes stuff for you before I get into what I thought of the movie. Back in 2005, director Neill Blomkamp put together a short film called Alive in Joburg (watch it here) that is, in essence, a short prequel to District 9. Blomkamp is from South Africa, and wanted to make a science fiction movie in that setting because it had never been done before. Before he directed Alive in Joburg (short for "Johannesburg," the South African city in which both films take place), Blomkamp worked for various television shows like "Dark Angel" and "Smallville" as a 3D animator. He took that technical background and personally created the special effects for Alive in Joburg. The short film made an impression on Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and his team, who a few years later were looking for an up-and-coming director to take on a Halo movie based on the popular XBox video game. After working for six or seven months on the project, Blomkamp turned in this amazing footage, but the film fell apart in the pre-production phase and hasn't been picked up since. Jackson recognized Blomkamp's talent, and his partner Fran Walsh asked Neill if he wanted to turn Alive in Joburg into a feature. So here we are, and District 9 is Neill Blomkamp's directorial debut in the feature film category. Did I mention the guy isn't even thirty years old yet? Incredible.
I'll try to avoid spoilers in case you haven't seen it, but I'd highly recommend checking this movie out in theaters. The film was made for only $30 million (a tiny sum for a summer action movie) and looked much more convincing than the other bloated CGI-based films to come out this summer. You've all seen the trailers, at least - the shot with the helicopters flying up to the hovering ship above the city took my breath away on a big screen. I'm not going to provide a plot summary because you're better off knowing as little about the movie as possible going in. Yes, I realize the inherent irony in saying that when I've barely started my review.
Blomkamp employs a documentary style that today's audiences have gotten used to over the past few years due to oversaturation, but District 9 doesn't feel gimmicky and doesn't come close to the nauseating result of The Bourne Supremacy. Personally, I think the film works because it's not all Cloverfield-esque where every scene in the movie is filmed in handheld mode: the movie starts as a documentary being made about the main character (including the occasional interview and nice touches like shots from security cameras) and, when it benefits the film, changes perspective away from that doc structure and shows the audience events that the "documentary crew" doesn't see. I can't remember ever seeing this type of filmmaking before: generally, you either stick with the whole thing being doc-style or none of it. Blomkamp's decision to utilize both does the movie a great service without being distracting or off-putting.
The themes tackled in District 9 are very well-handled: contemplations on what it means to be human, relationship struggles during trying times, allegories to the apartheid system, race relations, and corporate tyranny are all addressed with intelligence and competence. The script is great, and that's a huge reason this movie succeeds. Story is of paramount importance to these filmmakers, not just a thinly-reasoned game of connect the dots to the next action scene.
And deliver action, it does. I was expecting an almost-entirely intellectual movie when I sat down in the theater, but when I walked out I was blown away by how freaking awesome the action scenes were executed. Again, I'll stay spoiler free - but I will say that there are scenes involving alien weaponry that are unlike anything I've seen on film before. When I walked out, I was shaking my head imagining how amazing a Halo movie would have been if Blomkamp had directed it.
Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus van de Merwe, is a first time actor and does a terrific job with his performance. This is one of those films that definitely benefits from using unknown actors instead of plugging big name actors into the roles, and this will undoubtedly serve as a launchpad for Copley should he choose to further pursue acting. His character draws comparisons to Michael Scott from "The Office," due partly to the similarity in filming style and partly because they are both kind of boneheaded characters, but suffice it to say that this guy is not your typical sci-fi lead.
That about wraps it up for now. I might revisit District 9 and compare it to James Cameron's Avatar when that comes out in December, or perhaps delve a little further into the film upon further viewings post-DVD release. I hope this review was enough to convince you to see the movie, even if you wait for the DVD yourself. It's definitely worth watching, and probably the most original sci-fi action movie we've seen in a couple years. Until next time...