District 9 (2009) 4/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 77.3
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, David James

Neil Blomkamp’s surprise blockbuster makes strategic use of his home country’s recent history to construct an intelligent sci-fi with a modest political conscience. Beginning in documentary style, we are introduced to a Johannesburg that has for two decades been home to a million alien refugees who arrived in a mother ship that parked itself over the city on their arrival but has since remained stationary and unmovable. The “documentary” tells us that the “prawns”, as the native South Africans derogatorily call them, are considered to be a social menace and have been herded into a gigantic slum called “District 9”. It then introduces us to a beurocratic representative of an international company named Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley, who is heading up a massive government contracted operation to evict and move the aliens to a new site. The film stays in documentary format for a good 20 minutes before shifting to a more standard narrative which builds around Wikus’ exposure to an alien fluid and his subsequent metamorphosis into a human alien hybrid. Naturally, this makes him an attractive quantity to the shady company who hunt him down in an effort to develop their bio weapons programme and, in order to escape them, he flees to none other than District 9.

Though a South African/New Zealand production, District 9 is very much a blockbuster of Hollywood proportions. That is to say – it is heavy on the action and special effects and places only a minor emphasis on the social message. But thankfully, its execution sets it apart from its Hollywood counterparts in that there’s far less slow motion action, tight angles, lightning editing, nor over the top scoring that plagues the latter kind of movies. The story too unfolds in atypical style and around a central character that is as far removed from a Hollywood hero as one could be. A meek low level management type with a discernibly racist attitude towards the “prawns” who gets around to the self sacrifice thing much later in the movie than usual. And Copley plays him well refusing to shy away from his weaker characteristics and keeping a lid on any redeemable qualities until absolutely necessary. That he carries the film in that manner is therefore fairly impressive. The only significant supporting characters are entirely CGI generated aliens who Wikus aligns himself with when hiding in the slums. That said, this father and son duo are colourfully fleshed out with enough endearing characteristics to successfully solicit the audience’s concern. The bad guys similarly are largely nondescript with the exception of David James’ nasty security chief. James is solid in the role and he gives his army of mercenary types enough of a face to represent them.

By some accounts, producer Peter Jackson gave Blomkamp $30 million to do whatever he wanted and given this was his first feature length film, it was a brave move. But it paid off as the South African belies his inexperience by maintaining tight control over what is an extraordinarily high concept movie. Even with the switch from documentary mode to traditional perspective, he keeps the style streamlined so the transition goes mostly unnoticed. The action sequences are expertly constructed and made especially coherent with a refreshing use of wide angles and astounding visual effects. His script is equally stimulating and the latent and overt racism of the characters during the opening act is perceptively captured. At times, later in the movie, Blomkamp comes in danger of laying on the social commentary a little thick but, in the main, he handles it rather deftly. If there is a weakness to District 9, it comes (as it so often does) in the final act when the emotional points to the story are driven home. Here too, it gets a little heavy handed and we start to see a greater proportion of the dreaded slow motion shots but relative to other bonanza movies, it’s a minor offence.

District 9 isn’t the subtle masterpiece that so many have labelled it but it is an exceedingly strong action sci-fi that over the last twenty years has become an endangered species in cinemas. Here’s hoping we see more like it.

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