The highly anticipated film District 9 is opening today, all set to make a killing at the box office (and it certainly deserves the reward. It’s a well-crafted film, both in tone and tale, and brings to the screen the most authentic-looking aliens I’ve seen in quite a while. The question remains, though: is District 9 truly the be-all and end-all of science fiction films that critics have been raving about for the past month? The answer, quite simply, is no. While being a highly original film for the most part, the story does closely resemble the 1988 sci-fi film Alien Nation, which starred James Caan and Mandy Patinkin, right down to one of its central themes. In fact, one could say that District 9 is in many ways just a more updated, adult version of Alien Nation, only with better effects.
District 9‘s main premise is that nearly 30 years ago, an alien ship entered Earth’s atmosphere and took up a holding pattern above Johannesburg, South Africa. After three months without contact from the beings inside, a military force finally cut their way into the ship and searched, only to find hundreds of malnourished aliens living in squalor. At this time, humanity rose to the challenge of proving itself capable of displaying what’s best in our species by treating the aliens, caring for them, and providing shelters for them in a segregated area known as District 9, when it became clear the aliens were incapable of returning home.
Cut to present day: District 9 is now a slum, with the aliens (we never learn the true name for their species — humans refer to them by the derogatory slang term “prawn”) stealing whatever they can find from one another and each other, human gang lords roaming the district scamming the aliens whenever possible, human prostitutes having interspecies sex and many of the aliens picking up the worst human habits, such as forming their own violent gangs. The district is also now being run by Multi-National United, a private company specializing in arms manufacture, and which has no interest in the aliens’ overall welfare. Company man Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been placed in charge of overseeing the aliens’ forced relocation to another district further away from human contact, going door-to-door in order to obtain each alien’s signature on paperwork stating that they understand and agree to move. But with the military riding along with Wikus, it’s not like the aliens have much choice anyway. It’s during one of these stops to an alien shanty that something tragic happens to Wikus, which soon makes him the most wanted man on Earth.
The thing about District 9 which elevates it above standard science fiction fare is that it’s more of an allegorical tale about how humans mistreat one another for various reasons: money, power, jealousy and a host of other superfluous causes. If you see parallels in the lower-class status with which aliens are regarded and South Africa’s former ways of apartheid, it’s not just a coincidence. First-time director Neill Blomkamp and first-time writer Terri Tatchell, expanding the aliens’ tale from Blomkamp’s original short Alive in Joburg, have a firm grasp on the story and in spite of the aliens and their technology — the effects for both blend in with startling seamlessness with the humans (the duo are able to keep the film grounded in the area of the highly plausible. It also helps that the performances from all the actors are stellar across the board, especially first-time lead Copley, who was also featured (albeit in a different role) in Joburg.
The film starts to drag slightly in the final act, where it begins to descend into a typical action shoot-em-up (the same descent which doomed Alien Nation, and the effect for a suit of alien battle armor doesn’t always hold up that well. However, there are several quick twists down unexpected paths which Blomkamp and Tatchell take the story and the lead character at this point, which helps to keep District 9 from collapsing under its own weight.
In spite of whatever few flaws there are, District 9 is a treat to experience. In a highly uneven summer thus far, it’s nice that a little film produced on a relatively modest budget ($30 million) can come out of left field to deliver a pleasant surprise. There’s good news on both sides of the camera: For distributor Sony, it’s the fact that the movie will definitely make its money back. For filmgoers, it’s the knowledge that the film leaves itself wide open for a sequel.
Go visit District 9, but watch your back…there are aliens everywhere. –Lance Berry
The District 9 Blu-ray is a marvel, the kind of expansive, immersive experience you can spend 24 hours getting lost in (as Film School Rejects’ Neil Miller has done). Sony/Tri-Star did everything right, from the little details — like the two menus you can choose from to navigate the disc — to the loads of special features. Blu-ray consumers only get a handful of exclusives, but that probably has more to do with the generous helping of added content on the DVD than anything else — and besides, the exclusives are pretty great: You get an aerial map of the film’s Johannesburg that allows you to take an interactive tour of the District 9 environment, movieIQ content accessible via BD-Live, and for the PS3 owners in the audience, a God of War III demo with an unlockable making-of feature about the game.
And then there’s the small army of non-exclusive special features: Tons of deleted scenes, a commentary track from Blomkamp, a three-part documentary about the making of the film, and a stack of behind-the-scenes featurettes that give you an inside perspective on everything from the acting techniques used for the mocap-heavy production to the hours Copley spent in makeup. I’ve seen multi-disc “special editions” that contained less extra stuff than the District 9 Blu-ray, and when you stop to consider that it’s currently selling for less than $18 at Amazon, it’s awfully hard to resist, either as a gift for the sci-fi fan in your life or an addition to your own library. (Or both.)
In hi-def, as in theaters, District 9 looks and sounds impressive. Of course, $30 million is an awful lot of change no matter how you look at it, but a lot of filmmakers have done less with more; Blomkamp made the most of his budget and then some, thanks in part to some canny decision-making (such as the large number of brightly lit outdoor shots, which, as Blomkamp explains in one of the featurettes, helps add realism to digital creations). It also helps that Copley’s performance is so riveting that you’re never left staring at the movie’s CGI bits; they’re just the eye candy on a movie that blends white-knuckle popcorn thrills and social commentary as well as anything I can remember. Even if you don’t think you like sci-fi, check out District 9 — this is one movie that might surprise you. The hype was overwhelming, but it was justified. —Jeff Giles