District 9 (2009) dir. Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope
By Alan Bacchus
If anyone read my first review of this film during its theatrical release this summer, they’d know that despite the critical and commercial success I found the film more admirable than enjoyable, and distracted by the stylistic crutch of the documentary approach. Well, upon second viewing on glorious blu-ray I take it all back. ‘District 9’ is without doubt a great pictue, a signal of a new talent in science fiction/action cinema - a voice, reminiscent of a young James Cameron, back when he made movies like ‘Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’.
Blomkamp sets up a near future revisionist world we’ve never seen before. 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 dweeb 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 teams up with one of the aliens thus forming a unique companionship of male bonding.
Upon first viewing I was unimpressed with Sharlto Copely as the lead, referring to him as “thoroughly annoying for two thirds of the picture”. For some reason I can now see a great performance in the role of Wikus Van De Merwe, the nerdy pencil-pushing bureaucrat who becomes a part man-alien ass-beater. It’s a great cinematic character arc one which emerges so unexpectedly. If this film were cast in traditional Hollywood, someone like Tobey Maguire would have gotten the role, but by the mere fact that his is a recognizable ’star’ his transition from pathetic nerd to cinema bad ass would have been obvious. By the time we even release that this guy we’ve never ever seen before on the screen, Sharlto Copely is the star of the film, we’re already half way into the picture and deep into his predicament. Thus Wirkus’ redemption comes as a complete and genuine surprise.
The documentary still doesn’t work for me completely. The methodology works as an introduction to this world but Blomkamp’s continued use of the ’fake-footage’ approach is inconsistent and thus, unnecessary. By the midpoint Blomkamp discards the news footage point of view and starts shooting ‘traditional’ coverage and with a cinematic eye. But he still refuses to completely discard the mock-doc, including, almost at random fake ’surveillance’ shots, and even including a watermark logo in the bottom corner for no apparent reason - which makes me think the film would have just as good without any documentary approach at all.
But it’s a minor distraction against the balls out cinematic chutzpah on display. It’s a bit of serendipity that James Cameron’s ‘Avatar is released at the same time, because Blomkamp’s bold visual designs and muscular action sensibilities, bring to mind a younger James Cameron. The second half builds up with remarkable narrative intensity culminating in the third act introduction Wirkus robotic armour, the same kind of cinematic awesomenews as Ripley’s final confrontation in 'Aliens'.
"District 9" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Here's the original 'Alive in Joburg' short film by Neill Blomkamp: