DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: District 9

Monday, 17 August 2009

District 9

District 9 (2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James, Vanessa Haywood


After the death of the Jackson/Blomkamp adaptation of Halo, director Neill Blomkamp quickly dove into 'District 9', an expansion on his 2005 short film ‘Alive in Joburg’ – a youtube sensation for cultist scifi fanboy junkies.

Like Joburg, this near future revisionist world is introduced like a documentary, featuring interviews with fake experts recounting the day, in 1982, when an alien ship entered our atmosphere and parked itself overtop of Johannesburg South Africa. The aliens inside the ship, which looked like humanoid prawns, were corralled and ghettoized in an area called District 9. Twenty-eight years later, the district, now a shantytown filled all sorts of illegal and sordid behaviour, is to be moved to the outskirts of town.

In charge of moving the creatures, all of whom speak a Star Wars-type language but understand English, is a pencil-pushing dweep named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). During the raid, Wirkus becomes exposed to some illicit alien liquid which starts having unruly effects on his body. When Wirkus becomes the target of the government for study, suddenly he finds himself on the run and working with the aliens in hopes of reversing his evolving biological condition. Wirkus bonds with one of the aliens thus forming a unique companionship of male bonding.

If “District 9” were made three years ago in 2006, the mockumentary/realist aesthetic convention would have made a much greater impact. But “Cloverfield”, “Rec”, and even a whole video game ad campaign with the same faux documentary style, makes “District 9” feels like old news. Even the concept of aliens living with humans on earth, like marginalized second class citizens has been done before in “Alien Nation”. And even the imagery of the spaceship hovering over Johanesburg has been played out.

What makes “District 9” deserving of our attention is Neil Blomkamp’s bold visual designs and muscular action sensibilities, which actually bring to mind a younger James Cameron. The third act introduction of the robotic creature which Wirkus uses to fight off the enemies is built up and revealed with the same type of cinematic awesomenews as Ripley’s final confrontation in 'Aliens'.

Unfortunately as with “Cloverfield”, the mockumentary technique is an annoying distraction. While Matt Reeves was consistent in his approach Blomkamp moves back and forth inexplicably between documentary and traditional storytelling. Gradually the camera ceases to become part of the story and the mockumentary is discarded. And so I couldn't help think why we had to endure an hour of a mockumentary instead of just watching the story played out like a real dramatic film.

Wirkus is a typical Peter Jackson protagonist, a doofus, played over the top by Sharlto, with matted down hair, and an unironic moustache. Somewhere before shooting Blomkamp probably nixed he pocketprotector. Copley is thoroughly annoying for two thirds of the picture, until he finally loses his false skin of cliché to become a real character we feel like investing our time in.

With the transformation of Copley from button pushing follower to an active character with goals the film finally clicks into gear. This is when the Neil Blomkamp, whose short films and astoundingly robust commercials excited us all, comes to life. Losing the crutch of the mockumentary Blomkamp is finally allowed to walk by himself, crafting a good 20mins of original and thrilling sci-fi entertainment we had been waiting for. It’s one long awesome action sequence full of massive guns, bodies exploding and all sorts of creative heavy machinery.

It's all a little too late though. The stylistic crutches and narrative familiarity overrides Blomkamp's visual acuity, rending 'District 9" a film more to admire than to enjoy.


James said...

Great in depth mythology, completely suspended my sense of disbelief.
Action served the story not the other way around.
Wirkus is a completely relatable protagonist.
Thank god it wasn't all handheld because I hate motion sickness in a theater.
Made for 30M budget.

= Great movie (aka more than **1/2)

Anonymous said...

I viewed it this weekend and found it amazing. I give it a four and a half *'s easily.

I never made a connection with it to Alien Nation, and I've seen both the movie and TV series.

Blair said...

The budget of a film shouldn't factor into the quality of said film's review, James.

Alan Bacchus said...

Indeed I do admire the success of the film relative to it's budget