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In 1982 a colossal alien spaceship comes to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon entering the ship an exploratory team discovers around one million members of an arthropod-like extraterrestrial race who are in dire need of medical care. The aliens—disparagingly referred to as 'prawns’— are given asylum on Earth, but when some of the prawns begin to engage in criminal activities the government creates a refugee camp designed to house them. After twenty years the camp, designated District 9, has become little more than a slum and the aliens’ population has almost doubled. The human residents of Johannesburg want them out, so Multinational United (MNU)—the corporation in charge of policing D9—plans to relocate the prawns to a new site some two hundred and forty kilometres outside of the city.

 District 9
The eviction is spearheaded by MNU field operative Wikus van de Merwe, who comes into contact with a mysterious alien liquid when serving notice to a prawn called Christopher Johnson. That evening Wikus begins to feel ill, and after collapsing he is taken to hospital where it is revealed that his left arm has mutated into an alien appendage. Wikus is immediately taken into MNU custody where it is decided that he will be dissected in order to learn more about his mutating DNA in the hopes that it will hold the key to unlocking the ability to wield the aliens’ advanced energy weapons, which have so far proved unresponsive to human control. A panicked Wikus manages to escape and heads back to D9 in search of Christopher in the hope that he can reverse the mutation. Christopher agrees to help on the condition that Wikus assist him in recovering the canister containing the liquid from MNU headquarters, a task made all the more difficult by the brutal Koobus Venter, head of the private military corporation brought in to enforce the relocation effort.

I stumbled across the District 9 trailer quite by accident a couple of months before the film's general release. I thought it looked very interesting, evoking memories of the Cloverfield trailer, and it's fair to say that it was one of the few summer films that I was looking forward to. With so many of the year's event movies turning out to be lame ducks I was understandably cautious, but D9 not only met my expectations, it surpassed them. Some folks have criticised the transition from the handheld, documentary style of the first third of the film into the more conventional style of the remainder of the film, but it really worked for me. The early scenes provide enough information about the events leading up to the relocation so as not to leave the viewer out in the cold, but the filmmakers don’t go overboard by trying to explain too much. We don’t really need to know where the prawns come from, or how their ship floats, or even how the mysterious liquid is able to do all of the amazing things that it does (although I know that the last one irked our own Gabe Powers).

 District 9
The whole film hangs on Sharlto Copley's inspired turn as Wikus van de Merwe, the low-level bureaucrat charged with evicting the aliens from D9. He plays him as a bumbling fool who’s clearly a little bit out of his depth, and who compensates by acting like a complete prick. What's more amazing is that he spends most of his time acting across from CGI creatures, specifically lead prawn Christopher Johnson, who is one of the most believable animated characters I've ever seen. Although one can't help but recognise the obvious parallels between the events of the film and the real-life situation in South Africa, District 9 is primarily an action film and as such there's not a lot in the way of direct social commentary. This wasn't a problem for me because I just wanted to be entertained, but I can see how it might alienate some viewers expecting more substance. However, if you're just after an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours this is a great movie.

Video


District 9 arrives with a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer (1080/24p AVC). The film was apparently shot using the same Red digital high-definition cameras used for Alex Proyas' Knowing, which looked glorious on Blu-ray. The results speak for themselves, as this has to rank among the most visually impressive titles of the year. The film is a mixture of low resolution 'archival' footage and slick high-definition imagery, and those who crave that 'glossy' look from their Blu-ray titles are going to be extremely pleased with what's on offer here. The whole thing is pretty far removed from the look of conventional film—there isn't really any grain to speak of, and everything is incredibly clean and detailed—but it suits the tone of the piece and really helps to sell the effects. For me District 9 has the best integration of digital characters of any film I've seen this year, and yes I am including Avatar in that. The film has a pretty muted palette, but colours are well-rendered and everything looks fairly natural for the most part. Contrast runs pretty hot throughout so there's quite a lot of blooming, but it's an intentional stylistic choice. Blacks are solid enough if not entirely inky, but again they don't look out of place in the world of District 9.

 District 9
If you examine any transfer hard enough you'll be able to find flaws, but with District 9 you really are going to have to go looking for them. About the only 'flaw' that stood out was a possible visual glitch (at 27:22) that took the form of a black line briefly flashing across the screen, but to be perfectly honest I've no way of knowing if it really was a defect or just part of the original image. When taking the screen captures for the review I looked at various static shots at greater magnification than usual and even then there wasn't much to complain about bar some light edge enhancement during the 'handheld' sequences, a bit of posterisation and some noise in the darker areas, but none of these things really amount to anything. It's not the best looking disc I've seen this year, but it's certainly up there.

Audio


Sony appear to have transitioned from Dolby TrueHD to DTS-HD Master Audio for their high-profile releases, at least if the 5.1 soundtrack on this disc is anything to go by. The track doesn't waste any time in finding its feet; even the documentary sequences are packed with more effects than many films can mange in their entire runtime. There's plenty of directionality, with helicopters, trucks, tanks and gunfire immersing the viewer in the hostile environment of the camp. As the film progresses the use of discrete effects gets bigger and better, with the attack on MNU headquarters and the exo-suit sequences serving as highlights. The weird and wonderful alien weapons are especially impressive, and their lethal effects can be heard as the remains of mercenaries splatter all over the soundstage. Bass is reasonably potent, if not quite as ferocious as I was expecting until the alien mothership powered up and Wikus began to kick some arse. After that the sub started to emit the sort of bass that makes your bones vibrate.

 District 9
Of course the subtleties are also handled well, with plenty of ambient environmental audio that does a good job of selling the documentary sections without sounding forced. For example, when Wikus finds the stash of alien eggs the surround channels emit a squelching, oozing sound that really enhances the scene. You'll also hear the cameraman moving around as he films, creating a ‘rustling’ sound as he brushes against the microphone. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and it is often placed around the soundstage relative to Wikus' location to further enhance the documentary feel of the earlier sections of the film. The score isn’t hugely memorable, but it serves as a suitably atmospheric foundation for the rest of the mix. Again, this isn’t the greatest soundtrack of the year, but it is in the top tier.

Extras


First off I just have to mention the disc's menu system. When the disc first loads you are presented with two icons: human and prawn. Both selections have their own unique menu designs, and while functionality remains the same it's a nice little touch.

MovieIQ: This is Sony’s IMDb linked BD-Live feature that lets you view cast and crew information while watching the movie. I can’t say that I’ve ever had any call to use it myself, but I’m sure there are some people who will find it useful.

CineChat: This is another BD-Live feature that allows you to communicate with other people around the world as you watch the film. Again I can’t really see the attraction, but I guess there could be an audience for such a feature.

 District 9
Joburg from Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9: This Blu-ray exclusive is an interactive map the highlights various locations found in the film and allows you to zoom in on areas of interest. You can visit MNU Headquarters, rummage through Christopher Johnson's shack, and even visit the alien mothership. Each entry is accompanied by a text description and occasional full motion video, and a lot of the entries also allow you to drill down further to uncover even more interesting facts. If you're looking for more info about the aliens and their hardware this is a good place to start.

Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Neill Blomkamp: The director is on-hand with a solo commentary track that covers all of the bases, and considering it's his first commentary Blomkamp does a great job of balancing the technical details with more anecdotal information. There's plenty of talk about Alive in Joburg, the short film that inspired District 9, the political situation in South Africa at the time of the film's release, and the film-making experience as a whole.

Deleted Scenes (23:28 HD): There are twenty-two deleted scenes in all, many of which would most likely have appeared in the first third of the film as part of the archival footage establishing the aliens’ back-story and revealing more about their physiology and customs. However, there are also a number of scenes that feature Jason Cope in full-on silver gimp suit as he acts out the Christopher Johnson role as a reference for the animators. These are pretty amusing, and provide a little insight into the improvisational nature of the shoot.

 District 9
The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log (34:19 HD): This three-part documentary provides a lot of information about the genesis of the film (which rose from the ashes of the now-defunct Halo feature), the on-set . Peter Jackson pops up here and there to talk about the film, as does co-writer Terri Tatchell, and of course Blomkamp, Copley and Cope are also featured quite prominently. Blomkamp is quick to point out that the film is entertainment first and foremost, and that it doesn’t really have a political agenda despite the racially charged setting and themes. We’re also privy to a lot of location shooting and discussion about the film’s contrasting visual styles (handheld and traditional). The final part of the documentary focuses on the post-production work, such as sound design and mixing.

Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus (09:52 HD): This is a great little featurette that shows what Sharlto Copley had to endure in order to convincingly portray a man slowly mutating into an alien. There was a lot of prosthetic work that often took hours to apply and remove, and Copley is frank about his dislike of the process. He remains on top comedic form throughout, and has a very dry sense of humour.

Innovation: Acting and Improvisation (12:05 HD): This short featurette explains that the actors were pretty much given licence to ad-lib as much as they wanted to, so long as the core of the story remained intact. This is undoubtedly contributed to District 9's 'raw' feel, which in turn is part of what made the film so enjoyable.

 District 9
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 (13:08 HD): A bunch of people including director Neill Blomkamp, production designer Philip Ivey, prosthetics effects supervisor Joe Dunckley, lead concept designer Greg Broadmore, lead creature designer David Meng, visual effects supervisor Dan Kaufman, co-writer Terri Tatchell, and design and effects supervisor Richard Taylor (he of the nasal droning voice) are on hand to talk us through the process of designing the sets, the alien hardware, and the alien spacecraft.

Alien Generation: Visual Effects (10:18 HD): This short featurette delves into the complicated process of bringing the prawns to the screen. It mostly consists of interview and behind-the-scenes footage with Blomkamp, Copley and Cope, along with the effects guys themselves. The amount of work that went into creating the aliens is incredible, and watching Jason Cope running around on stilts dressed in a skin-tight silver suit is reminiscent of Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum (although he was dressed in a giant condom).

Trailer (02:31 HD): If you want to see the trailer for Michael Jackson's This Is It, here's your chance. Annoyingly it also pops up before the main menu loads.

 District 9

Overall


District 9 is not without its problems, but for me the good far outweighs the bad. In a year full of big-budget disappointments it's been left to relatively low-budget flicks like District 9 and Moon to fill the void, and I fully expect to see a raft of similar films from first time directors in the near future as Hollywood attempts to recreate its success. Sure it's derivative of other alien movies, but it offers enough fresh ideas to keep things interesting and for once it's nice to see a genre flick that doesn't take place in the USA. Technically you couldn't ask for much more than this Blu-ray, with an extremely strong audio-visual presentation and some surprisingly in-depth bonus material. Had this arrived before Christmas it would definitely have been my 'must have' title, but as it stands you'll just have to pick it up as an early new year's treat. This one comes highly recommended.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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