District 9 (US - BD)
Gabe remembers hiding Prawns in his attic during the Alien Apartheid era...
In the year 1982 a giant alien spacecraft came to a standstill above Johannesburg, South Africa. After months of watching and waiting human authorities cut into the craft, and found a million huddled, malnourished insectoid aliens. The seemingly leaderless, worker class creatures are granted asylum, and put in temporary slum housing. The slum is dubbed ‘District 9’. Eventually a company called Multinational United (MNU), coincidentally one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers, is placed in charge of policing and relocating the now 1.8 million aliens to ‘District 10’, a new camp set hundreds of miles away from Johannesburg. A middle level operative named Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is somewhat surprisingly put in charge of informing the aliens, derogatorily referred to as ‘Prawns’, of their recent eviction. The operation does not go down without incident.
Star Trek notwithstanding, the summer of 2009 was mostly defined by disappointment, specifically for action/adventure films. Unlikely releases like Drag Me To Hell, Up and Inglourious Basterds peppered the period with enough value to not call off the whole summer, but the time span’s usually bread and butter was hindered by writer’s strikes, ballooning budgets, and boring special effects. District 9 came out of nowhere, with geek cred, and Peter Jackson’s name on the marquee, but not much else to suggest a good film or sleeper hit. District 9 cannot be defined as one thing, it’s a mix of genres and styles including mockumentary, hard sci-fi, balls-out action, graphic, Cronenbergian body-horror, political satire, gross out comedy, and nerve shredding melodrama. What’s really shocking is that every single one of these elements works like the proverbial gangbusters. Some critics and viewers have complained about the switches in tone, specifically the change from documentary style to more tradition fictional filmmaking, but I find the abrupt change-ups challenging in a positive way, and important to the breathless, unravelling nature of the story. District 9 is also the best video game movie ever made, even if it’s not directly based on any pre-existing video game. Many readers probably already know that Neill Blomkamp was originally hired as a director by Jackson back when he was still producing a film based on the Halo series.
Blomkamp, and his co-writer Terri Tatchell crafted (subjectively speaking, of course) probably the most intelligent Hollywood science fiction/action film since The Matrix. The two films are comparable in their use of classic tropes and familiar concepts to tell an original story. Both films are both familiar and original, but instead of using the medium to explore mythology and philosophy (ala The Matrix), District 9 dives head first into politics, and tells its story through the modern eyes of twenty-four hour news networks and YouTube links. The first and most inescapably political step Blomkamp takes is setting the film in Johannesburg, one of the hotbeds of political upheaval in the world. Besides being the only ‘Western’ country in the very alien continent of Africa, South Africa is forever marked by the specter of the Apartheid era. The displaced alien motif recalls xenophobic problems found in pretty much every country in the world, but given the region’s history Johannesburg really is the perfect place to reap and sow a collection of worldwide relevant political ideas—from the treatment and dehumanization of the lower class, to the Military Industrial Complex.
It’s difficult to see the film as a pure adventure/horror story, but audiences disinterested in allegory or subtext (I like to call them ‘boring people’) should be able to just go with the flow thanks to Blomkamp’s grasp of ‘cheer at the boom’ action. The balance between subtle allegory and full-on satire is shaky, but the shakiness partially defines the tone of the film, which toes the line on the edge of apocalyptic violence. The blackness of the comedy, on the other hand, along with the hard R nature of the violence makes for the summer’s biggest money making surprise. The film is very dark, very bleak—the exact kind of thing a studio would’ve messed with had the film cost anything more than $30 million. Perhaps the most shocking element from a mainstream success standpoint is the deep darkness of the major characters. Wikus is a gloriously grey protagonist. In fact, he verges on genuine evil with his selfish behaviour throughout the film. It works because Christopher Johnson, the main Prawn, anchors the audience morally, and because almost everything Wikus does is understandable, if morally reprehensible (and when he does the right thing, it’s arguably a biological imperative). In fact, it’s hard to argue that any of the human characters are particularly humane, other than perhaps Wikus’ wife, who we don’t really get to know all that well anyway. Sometimes this inhumanity oversteps into parody, as in the case of the lead Merc, who practically drools black bile, but for the most part the human villainy is based in reality.
Some North American viewers and critics have dubbed District 9 ‘racist’ based on its treatment of black Africans. Sadly, Blomkamp and his co-writer Terri Tatchell based this aspect of the film in pretty solid reality. It’s not an issue of race, but of culture, and the cultures of the area are often very violent.
The effects work is subtle and expertly blended, shaming the big budget bombast of this summer’s effects spectaculars. The ‘lightning in a bottle’ realism is exciting and enticing, in a cinema verite manner utilized by last year’s surprise medium budget effects adventure Cloverfield (which doesn’t compare in terms of story, but is otherwise cosmetically similar). A closer look reveals some real chinks in the armour, but the subjective camera use makes for more immediate and relatable response. This stands in direct opposition to the numbing digital effects found in most of the summer’s popular films, which utilize impossible, numbing roller coaster camera moves to force their awe upon an audience. Speaking in terms of spectacle this works just fine in some cases, but it’s almost impossible to develop any emotional attachment to such things. Ah, what the hell, I’ll drop the pretence—I’m talking about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen most specifically here. I hope Michael Bay watched District 9 and cried himself to sleep on his giant pile of money, because he could never hope to make an effects film with half the heart for twice the money.
In discussing the film’s shortcoming will involve some minor spoilers, and even minor spoilers will damage this particular viewing experience (which is too bad considering it’s been months since release). Please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film simply knowing that there are some plotting issues throughout the film.
The majority of notable shortcomings appear to be symptoms of the film’s organic nature. There’s a lot about the aliens we never learn in the course of the film, and what we’re told comes from human mouths. The plot holes created by the mysterious nature of the Prawn culture are kind of a necessity, and as an audience we should be expected to fill in many of these blanks. Why are the aliens relatively mindless drones? Why can’t they work their ship? Blomkamp has a lot of answers, and shares them during the disc’s extras, but it’s not needed unless the audience is totally unreceptive to participation, or entirely unreceptive to the allegories. The plot problem I found myself somewhat unreceptive to was that of the mysterious cylinder filled with mysterious liquid, liquid which does whatever the plot needs it to do. I’ve developed a bit of a hate-on for obvious MacGuffins lately, and the cylinder is almost a textbook MacGuffin, except for the fact that it also does everything. Why does It’s a cheap bit of convenience in an otherwise thoughtful film.
District 9 doesn’t need to look perfect to be enjoyed based on the film’s style. The multiple camera set style makes for a varying image quality, which is clearly the point. Still, on this 1080p Blu-ray the bulk of the video is crystal clear and super realistic, displaying a wide range of even details, high fidelity colours, and almost zero grain. The depth of field during the helicopter shots is incredible, and the details are never obscured based on camera placement, or garbled by sheer quantity. Even the darkest night sequences are crisp and clean, with perfectly discernable highlights supported by perfectly rich blacks. The non-hi-def camera work is obviously less spectacular, but in high definition the various artefacts make their point (the footage taken of Wikus from inside MNU headquarters features edge-enhancement and a generally washed out look for example). In cinemas the shaky camera movement was a little overwhelming, but on video it’s easy to appreciate the finer details, which is a slight negative for the digital effects, but a big plus for the production design. Colours also appear richer on this disc than they did in theatres, including the Prawn body paints, which really pop against the desolate browns and greys of the slums of South Africa. The green of Christopher’s skin is the biggest surprise, which was greyer on the non-digital big screen.
However fantastic this disc’s video is, it still doesn’t compare to the utter perfection of the DTS-HD 5.1 audio track. The mixed documentary feel makes for some interesting audio design issues. Stylistically the sound moves in and out of what could be realistically picked up during an actual documentary, mostly coming out on the side of hyper reality. The track is busy throughout the entire film, including even the most visually static sequences. The outdoor scenes are overflowing with wildlife, and directional effects like moving helicopters and other vehicles. During Wikus’ transformation the audio is inundated with seemingly subjective effects, like ringing and throbbing bass. On the less subtle side are the film’s many and varied action scenes, which recall Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Star Wars in equal measures. Stray bullets and shrapnel slather the surround channels, while the LFE throbs with the punch of booming explosions. The big ‘hell yeah’ moment comes when the Prawn mothership turns on and lets loose a battle horn like noise that shatters the windows of the buildings around it, but the whole of the final act is an utter audiophile delight. The music is mostly made up of a mix of ambient noise and really heavy drums. When mournful vocals and exciting arrangements are pressed into the mix it’s usually pretty strum and drang on the track, but never overwhelms the aggressive sound effects, or important dialogue elements.
To start us off, this District 9 comes with two menu choices. The menu you get will depend on your choice at the beginning of the disc, that of human or Prawn. This choice only changes the menu look, so far as I can tell. On both menus the extras start with director Neill Blomkamp’s commentary. Blompkamp is incredibly humble and soft spoken (perhaps if the track had been recorded after the successful release he’d be a little more barrel-chested). His focus is divided throughout, leading me to think that a second track may have been advisable as well, because both the technical dialogue and the historical information is valuable. Most viewers, including myself, will go in to the film without any real understanding of the current affairs in South Africa, and without Blomkamp laying this stuff out for us we’d probably continue to live in ignorance. I had assumed the film’s look was authentic, but his description of the region is downright depressing. There isn’t enough discussion of the plot, and its occasional holes, but there is some back story on the alien culture, and one has to respect the director for picking a tone, and attempting to maintain subject matter focus. This is a very good track, good enough that I want more.
Available only to Blu-ray viewers is ‘Joburg from Above', an interactive map of ‘District 9’. This includes satellite images of the site, running text commentary from the MNU at the bottom of the screen, ‘live feed’ footage at the side of the screen, and options to switch to District 9, Mothership, and MNU Headquarters specific screens. From these menus the viewer can access descriptive text and video of everything alien and MNU, including weapons, vehicles and basic science. Many menus have additional sub menus.
The extras continue with twenty-two deleted scenes (23:30, HD). Most of these pertain to the mockumentary part of the film, and fill out the film’s universe well, without affecting the plot of the more dramatic sections of the film. It’s clear that Blomkamp wasn’t exactly sure how to balance the two dominant aspects of the film, and erred on the side of too much improv. The most telling bits are one where the MNU president discusses the aliens on some kind of television segment, and a scene describing the Prawn reproduction (they are self inseminating). It’s also quite amusing to watch the pre-effects scenes, which are guys in silver suits on stilts.
Next up is the three part behind the scenes documentary, entitled ‘The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log’ (34:30, HD). The first chapter, ‘Envisioning District 9’, covers the end of Blomkamp’s last short, which then cut into the making of a film based on the Halo video games. After that fell through, producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh decided to help Blomkamp make an original film. This section revels some of the back story that didn’t find its way into the film, and covers the process of prepping a film that looks a lot bigger than $30 million. The second part, ‘Shooting District 9’, covers the difficulty of filming on that budget, the technical aspects of the different styles of film, the practical effects and action, production design, and the acting process. The last part, ‘Refining District 9’, looks briefly at the post-production process, including visual effects, editing and sound design.
Following this is a collection of featurettes. ‘Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus’ (10:00, HD) takes a look at the make-up process behind the main character’s gross-out evolution. ‘Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9’ (12:00, HD) is an interesting glance behind the character and acting process that separates the film from just about every other sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. The focus here is placed mostly on the film’s professional actors, not the man on the street stuff. ‘Concept and Design: Creating the World of District 9’ (13:20, HD) has one of those self-explanatory titles, and clearly covers all the production design, concept art, and set and prop design behind the film. The creature designs are the most exciting. ‘Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9’ (10:20, HD) also speaks for itself, and covers all the digital augmentations behind the film. Technically speaking this stuff doesn’t usually interest me, but the cost effective means are pretty interesting.
Everything comes to an end with a few Sony trailers, a digital copy, and a God of War III demo (which I couldn't play on my non-PS3). Not found on the disc— any of Blomkamp’s short films. What the hell, Sony?
District 9 might be the most assured and successful first film in a very long time. I’m really struggling to recall something comparable in the last two decades. It’s certainly better than Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, all due respect. Just think of the possibilities now that Neill Blomkamp has one under his belt. Think of the quality differences between capable films like Public Access or Pi, and the genuine class of films like The Usual Suspects or Requiem for a Dream. Let’s just pray against the sophomore slump. The disc looks great, better than even expected, and sounds just about perfect. Surely demo material. The extras stop just this side of greatness, including a commentary solid enough to want some more, a bunch of deleted scenes, and a good, but not great making-of featurette. The lack of Blomkamp’s shorts, which inspired the film and Jackson’s well placed faith. Here’s a link, for those that are not in the know: Blomkamp’s Shorts.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 22nd December 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Joburg from Above, Deleted Scenes, The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log, Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus, Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9, Concept and Design: Creating the World of District 9, Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9, Trailers, Digital Copy, God of War III Demo
Easter Egg: No
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Norman Anstey, Anthony Bishop, Anthony Fridjhon, William Allen Young, Mike Huff
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller and War
Length: 112 minutes
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