Review by Jack Foley
AFTER months of clever viral marketing and feverish word of mouth, District 9 finally invaded cinemas and lived up to its hype back in the summer of 2009.
Neill Blomkamp’s movie is that rarest of beasts – a genuinely unique experience that offers one of the most inventive, thought-provoking and exciting movie experiences of the year.
Shot using a documentary style for just $30 million, this sci-fi stunner puts the megabucks likes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator Salvation to shame, emerging as an instant classic to rival the likes of Ridley Scott’s Alien and – more recently – Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Yet contrary to expectation, Blomkamp’s film challenges and subverts traditional sci-fi convention while simultaneously paying homage to the best that the genre has to offer.
The film begins amid a flurry of to-camera interviews that help to explain the history of the mysterious District 9.
Over 20 years ago, a giant alien spaceship inexplicably arrives and hovers over Johannesburg, sending its residents into panic. Contrary to expectation, however, the aliens inside pose no threat, and are malnourished and lacking in leadership.
They’re subsequently interned in slum-like shacks and forced to co-exist with the city’s reluctant citizens, who resent the new immigrants and campaign for their removal.
Back in the present day, crime and mistrust between humans and aliens is such that the decision is taken by a private security firm named MNU to relocate the aliens to a new internment camp further away from the city limits.
Leading this effort is a pencil-pushing bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) but what begins as a shambolic, even comic, attempt at rounding up the aliens quickly takes a more sinister turn when Wikus inadvertently exposes himself to a mystery liquid.
As his DNA rapidly begins to change, his colleagues see an opportunity they have long been seeking, prompting Wikus to question his allegiances and go on the run to secure his own survival. But who can he trust to halt his decline?
Blomkamp’s film works on so many levels that it’s easy to see why producer Peter Jackson was prepared to place so much faith in him.
Having initially recruited the former commercials director to make the big screen version of Halo, he then bent over backwards to ensure he got his shot at the big time with District 9 once the former project fell through.
Blomkamp doesn’t waste the opportunity, turning District 9 into a genuinely thrilling experience.
Early on, he cleverly mixes uneasy humour with sequences that allude to much wider social issues such as racism, human rights violations and his own country’s history of Apartheid, before cutting loose with an all-action second half that’s breathlessly exciting.
In doing so, he also challenges viewers pre-conceptions of more traditional alien invasion fare, to the extent that you’ll be firmly rooting for the aliens over humanity.
Wikus, meanwhile, becomes the film’s unlikely hero and Copley expertly conveys his transition from bureaucrat to flawed action hero in suitably believable fashion, eschewing the more gung-ho Hollywood approach whereby everyday Americans become larger-than-life saviours.
But then Blomkamp revels in the freedom afforded by the lack of a big studio, even going so far as to poke fun at the notion that so many movies begin and end in the US.
Rather, he makes the most of South Africa’s distinct backdrop and its chequered history, while remaining reverential to some of the movies that inspired his vision, dropping in nice nods to Scott’s Alien and, in particular, the infamous John Hurt sequence, as well as Jackson’s earlier, more bloody movies.
District 9 is not for the squeamish but while there’s plenty of gore, it’s offset by the emotion and emphasis on character that’s so often missing from effects-driven movies.
For it’s another of the film’s many qualities that you’ll care about its principal players, as well as being rewarded with the type of killer final scene that so many bigger pictures fluff.
A sequel looks inevitable but, for once, it feels like an exciting prospect. Blomkamp, meanwhile, has quickly established himself as a major creative force to watch.
Don’t miss it!
Running time: 1hr 50mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: December 28, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- District 9 Photo Gallery
- The best films of 2009
- Watch the trailer