Given its canny ad campaign, it’s no surprise that District 9 was a fair hit in its late Summer 2009 release. Some really excellent digital effects, a couple of close-ups of insectoid aliens, and no real reveals on the story – it had intrigue written all over it. The viewer wanted to see the movie, just to find out what was going on. Fortunately for the continued success of the movie, audiences seemed to like what was going on.
In the documentary style that bookends the movie, we get brought up to speed in the movie's world. Twenty years previous, an enormous alien ship, 2.5 kilometers across, appeared above Johannesburg, South Africa – and continued to simply hang there. Eventually the ship is breached by Earth forces, and the remnants of the crew – a humanoid, crustacean race that come to be known as “Prawns” – are rescued.
It’s a significant effort. The movie estimates there are as many as 1.5 million Prawns living in a shantytown known as “District 9”, surrounded by concrete walls and policed once human/Prawn tensions grew too high. The documentary at the beginning is meant to cover the effort to move the Prawns to another, more isolated settlement, due to increasingly disgruntled demands from the human population of Johannesburg. The bureaucratic drone ostensibly in charge of the move, Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) manages to get himself exposed to an alien fluid during the first day of evictions, and to his horror finds that this is quickly causing his DNA to be overwritten – in short, he is turning into a Prawn, and his life begins to suck by several increasing orders of magnitude.
That writer/director Neill Blomkamp himself was born and raised in South Africa under Apartheid is painfully obvious. There is too much in the situation that rings true – the casual racism and brutality of Van de Merwe and his comrades, the matter-of-fact segregation, not only between human and Prawn, but between human races as well. That the movie is filmed in a true shanty town from which the residents were only recently relocated only adds to the verisimilitude.
Even when the movie switches storytelling gears from the documentary style to a more traditional cinematic approach, Blomkamp keeps events grounded by using an improvisational approach to the acting, drawing a remarkably raw and truthful performance from Copley as the deeply flawed Wikus. That the film initially started as a failed Halo movie project becomes quite obvious in the third act, when human weapons finally come up against alien tech, and Wikus is given a chance to redeem himself.
The most remarkable thing about District 9, I find, is that it feels like a much smaller film – and at a $30 million budget, by Hollywood standards, it is. But it has a continuous art house vibe, in spite of that sci-fi shoot-em-up at the end complete with “exploding meatsacks”. This is likely due to a bizarre intimacy in the movie, despite taking place in a world where a city’s skyline is dominated, night and day, by an enormous, dead alien ship(as it turns out, an image I've been waiting some thirty years to see) . For two hours, we inhabit Wikus' changing skin, privy to every flaw, every shortcoming, every moment of helplessness, and that seems more the province of the Indie film than the action thriller.
Yet it is also this action thriller aspect that also works against it. As a science-fiction fan, I was hoping for much more in the way of the initial documentary material, detailing the sociological impact of a city attempting to live alongside an alien race, and when that subject steps aside for a fairly standard against-all-odds vehicle, it is difficult to not feel disappointed.
Then, I also have to admit that I was looking for a harder, grittier, more realistic version of Alien Nation, and I have to admit I got it.
The disc holding the movie starts with a stark choice: two icons of a human and a Prawn. These access differently-themed menu interfaces, clever but a bit unnecessary. Different videos play in both menus, with no spoilers.
Originally filmed on digital video, District 9 looks as good as it possibly could, and it is a tribute to New Zealand’s WETA Workshop and the other effects houses that their digital effects integrate so seamlessly, even with DVD’s greater clarity, which has been the downfall of many, more expensive movies.
Disc One starts out with a puzzlingly non-anamorphic trailer for Moon, before switching back to anamorphic for 2012, Legion, Michael Jackson: This Is It and Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Neil Blomkamp provides a very lucid, well-spoken commentary track, delving into Johannesburg itself, revealing effects methodology, and letting us in how absurd he finds the over-the-top-violence at the end (he has since gone on record as wanting to do a Monty Python-esque movie, and there is certainly a bit of the Black Knight on display here).
There are also no fewer than 22 Deleted and Extended Scenes (unsurprising given the improv nature of shooting), and a featurette entitled The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log, which is broken down into three chapters: Envisioning, Shooting, and Refining. Further, you can access the trailers at the beginning of the disc, as well as those for Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, Zombieland, Black Dynamite, Hardwired, The Stepfather, Blood: The Last Vampire and the second season of Damages. Oh, there's also an ad pimping Blu-Ray.
Disc Two starts with more trailers. Dear John, Dark Country, Takers and The Damned United. Then into more technically-oriented featurettes: Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus, Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9, Conceptions and Design: Creating the World of District 9, and Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9.
When you're finished with those, you can also (again) access the previews at the first of the disc (except, oddly, for Dear John) as well as box sets of The Shield and Rescue Me, and By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.
If recent marketing trends were anything to be judged by, the rest of Disc Two would be expected to be taken up by a Digital Copy, but such is not the case. Disc Two seems a little light, therefore. A pity, since the short film made by Blomkamp that formed the basis for this movie, Alive in Jo'burg, would have made a fine extra.
Dr. Freex, 1/9/2010