Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope
The year 2009 has been a splendid year for sci-fi, with Cameron’s Avatar pushing the limits in film making technology as well as box office potential, Abram’s sleek and erogenous revival of Star Trek reaching wide commercial success, and the pyscho-thiller Moon grabbing newcomer director Duncan Jones some serious attention. It is safe to add to the list District 9, which happens to be the best of the bunch.
Originally, producer Peter Jackson had picked South African born Neill Blomkamp to make his directorial debut with an adaptation to the video game phenomenon Halo. But when financing put the project in development purgatory, Jackson gave Blomkamp the go ahead to make whatever film he wanted. Under one condition: a fraction of the budget.
District 9 comes from a mini-mokumentary made by Blomkamp when his career was still only Nike commercials and digital shorts. It’s all set in his own birthplace, Johannesburg, where there are townships, slums, heavy accents, and barbed wire fences that give the film a harsh and gritty setting.
Twenty years prior to modern time, a large space craft stalled above the city, unable to move. After humans entered the ship, they encountered something much different from the “light of heavens” interaction they were expecting. The aliens were diseased, famished and hopeless. So for twenty years, the government kept them isolated in a ghetto which experienced crime, discrimination and poverty. It is up to the world’s second largest weapons manufacturer, MNU, to relocate the “prawns” into a far-off concentration camp after humans can no longer take their burden. In charge of the evacuation is Wikus (Copley), a pencil pusher looking to prove his place, who begins to find himself split between the two worlds in a great chase for weapons and power that he barely understands.
Taking the greatest elements of gritty sci-fi films and their scathing political undertones with the abilities of modern movie special effects technology, Blomkamp is able to mesh these aliens seamlessly into a very real human world that echoes ours. And while the obvious political undertones make this an allegory for apartheid, more conceptual parallels can be made with our current human rights, terrorism, and corporate moral dilemma. See Iraq for further detail.
Thematically speaking, the movie is pure brilliance. Without forcing political opinions down your throat, it is allegorical, powerful and lyrical all the same time. The latter is achieved through an array of film making techniques. Switching between pre and post documentary footage, black and white surveillance, news agency cameras and cinematographer Trent Opalch’s endless combinations of handheld footage, Blomkamp makes everything appear as on the run and out of control as it is for Wikus. The whole story is edited and composed as frantic and raw as it should be.
The technical divisions of this film need to be given a hand as well for creating the film under an impressive $30 million budget (a tenth of Avatar’s). The film rightfully picked up Oscar nods for best picture, screenplay, visual effects and editing, but somehow left out key nominations for Blomkamp and Copley, a former producer and friend to Blomkamp. It is Copley’s tightly wound and focused Wikus that carries emotional investment for the entire film.
District 9 is a political movie, a better one than Avatar for sure. But, finally, it is a sci-fi that is never complete without pulse pounding action keeping your mind and heart racing frantically along with Wikus as he undergoes character changes you’ll never be able to suspect.