« Bang, Zoom, Straight to the Lagoon | Main | The Stuff Extremes Are Made Of »

A Bug's Strife

District 9 (2009)

TriStar Pictures

“District 9” couldn’t have come at a better time. For a science-fiction genre that’s been noticeably stagnant in recent years, this feature-film debut from writer-director Neill Blomkamp feels like the start of something big, a seismic shift in both public attention and filmmaking creativity toward a once-potent landscape inhabited by aliens and flying saucers. Hyperbole is risky business of course, and thrusting such a weighty compliment upon “District 9” could end up being a premature miscalculation. It could earn placement within critics’ top-10 lists and nothing more. Better judgment, however, thinks not.

“District 9,” structured as a fusion of narrative with faux documentary, is incredibly ambitious. This isn’t a game-changer in the vein of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it’s quietly forceful enough to hopefully rattle the neglected cage in Hollywood where astronaut George Taylor was once held captive. Mr. Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson have (indirectly) executed the ultimate middle finger toward recent bloated sci-fi productions that lack anything other than expensive eye candy. In particular, a destructive robot-suit near the end of “District 9” packs more firepower than the entirety of “Terminator Salvation.”

Although the overall spectacle is tough to look past, the film’s success really lies within its subtext — that of tragic heroism. Based on Mr. Blomkamp’s 2005 short “Alive in Joburg,” “District 9” speaks on South Africa’s Apartheid from E.T.’s perspective. In a fictionalized reality, more than one million landed above Johannesburg in 1982, malnourished and docile. The government, blinded by the otherworldly weapons found on the aliens’ spaceship, threw the extraterrestrials into District 9, a fenced-off slum occupied by Nigerian gangs and the impoverished. It’s 2010 now, and the otherworldly citizens are lashing out in violent ways. Military-backed Multi-National United assigns Wikus van de merwe (played by newcomer Sharlto Copley), head of MNU’s Alien Affairs division, to lead a mass eviction of aliens out of District 9. Wikus — the dimwitted, underqualified son-in-law of his boss — follies the mission in a way that welcomes in grotesque transformation and, for the aliens, possible salvation.

The film’s price tag was reportedly only $30 million; watching “District 9,” though, makes that figure hard to believe. As the mastermind behind the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, producer Mr. Jackson knows a thing or 10 about pristine visual effects. Here, his know-how results in some creepily realistic-looking aliens, created by Mr. Jackson’s regular collaborators at Weta Workshop and speaking through extensive subtitles. Their eyes appear believably sad and their expressions contort into real emotion, not unlike the titular C.G.I. beast in Mr. Jackson’s “King Kong” remake. Mr. Blomkamp’s slickest trick is presenting the aliens as genuine slumdogs — digging in trash heaps for foods and living in shacks. They’re even given a demeaning moniker, “prawns” (for their unflattering resemblance to slimy shrimp). You’ll feel for them more so than any human on screen, which is precisely the point.

Oddly enough, “District 9” is closer stylistically to this summer’s critical favorite, “The Hurt Locker,” a cerebral action show set in Iraq, than to any recent sci-fi. Both films bleed dirt and in-your-face excitement with digital handheld camerawork. “The Hurt Locker” is so effective because director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal conquered a difficult balancing act, marrying audience-hooks (piercingly intense suspense and blazing action) with underlying intelligence and a tangible message; “District 9” similarly succeeds due to its delicate handling of conflicting agendas. The first 45 minutes of the film are patient yet loaded, establishing the aliens’ plight through news reports and docu-styled interviews. But even when the anarchy takes over and “District 9” slides into its body-exploding finale, Mr. Blomkamp keeps the humanity alive.

The climax, pitting a humanoid freedom fighter against trigger-happy soldiers, alters the film’s tone so drastically that it’d be easy to feel cheated. The inter-species drama and political satire that came before seem overshadowed by a frenzy of missiles and airborn viscera. It’s carnage with an agenda, though. By the time a prawn uses its hands to decapitate a flesh-and-blood villain, Mr. Blomkamp has proven himself to be more than a gorehound. He’s a storyteller sensitive enough to develop a touching father-and-son relationship between two extraterrestrials. That papa alien just so happens to run around toting an automatic weapon the size of a German shepherd is of secondary concern.

Two years ago, Messrs. Blomkamp and Jackson were denied the chance to turn the mega-popular video game franchise “Halo” into a potential blockbuster film. Mr. Blomkamp hasn’t been shy in expressing the frustration and disappointment that he felt at the time, a then-victim of financial setbacks robbed of an opportunity to show the world what he’s got. Well, he can now redirect that middle finger toward those “Halo” stoppers. With “District 9,” the 29-year-old rookie has established himself as a visionary (there’s that hyperbole again) capable of turning hardly anything (or, a sci-fi-lite $30-million budget) into something plentiful. Somewhere, in some lush Hollywood office, there’s sure to be a suit-and-tie chap wiping proverbial pie off of his face. Here’s to Mr. Blomkamp baking another pie sooner rather than later.


Opens on Aug. 14 in the United States and on Sept. 4 in Britain.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp; written by Mr. Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Julian Clarke; production designer, Philip Ivey; music by Clinton Shorter; produced by Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham; released by TriStar Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Sharlto Copley (Wikus), David James (Koobus), Jason Cope (Christopher Johnson), Vanessa Haywood (Tania) and Louis Minnaar (Piet Smit).


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2024 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on X
Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions | Powered by TypePad