MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action/ Stars: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood Mandla Gaduka, Eugene Wanangwa Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, Kenneth Nkosi, William Allen Young, Robert Hobbs, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, John Sumner, Nick Blake, Jed Brophy, Vittorio Leonardi / Runtime: 112 minutes
Engaging yet thought-provoking. Clean yet dirty. Potent yet laden with a purpose. Exhausting yet intriguing from beginning to end. Indeed in case it wasn’t obvious by the start of this review, District 9 is a film that deals with pairings both literally and figuratively. By that I mean this film is about heroes and villains from a pair of planets attempting to find a way to live in peace on Earth. From a figurative perspective however, this is a film that merges quite a bit of engaging action and terrific visual work with a world that is both downright depressing yet also reflective on both the history of mankind and what it means to be human. Indeed this mix of terrific effects and filmmaking is one which is constantly coming to blows with the extraterrestrial-occupied areas of Johannesburg in South Africa, where we see that tragedy is the norm and where everyone at the heart of our tale could be interpreted as both a protagonist and an antagonist thus resulting in a film where we pay witness to a few days of turmoil that, by the time the dust settles, have the potential to change things forever for both mankind and our alien visitors in equal measure.
The plot is as follows: So according to the story set up at the beginning of this story, for about the past three decades, a huge alien ship has been hovering over the city of Johannesburg in the country of South Africa and it is assumed to be stranded there due to the fact that a command vessel is believed to have fallen to our planet even though it has never been located. Be that as it may be, it’s safe to say that for the first few months of the ship’s presence on our planet, it was approached with varying degrees of both theorizing and severe anxiety/panic. That is of course until mankind decided to head into the ship, learn just why it was here, but also learn what happened to anyone or anything onboard. Thus we see that the aliens onboard are soon sent to the city of Johannesburg which is directly below where the aliens have chosen to park their vehicle. Upon arrival, the aliens are put in a group of slum-like housing and just left to their own devices. However, following years of sheer laziness and numerous resources only making the creatures’ living conditions worse coupled with gangs coming to the area and filling with it violence as well as a constant stream of weaponry of both the human and extraterrestrial variety being uncovered seemingly daily, the decision is soon made to relocate all 1.8 million aliens to a new locale a fair distance away from the city. The man we soon learn that is put in charge of this operation, and subsequently our main character, is a decent, kind, and friendly man at heart by the name of Wilkus Van De Merwe. Yet even for a man with Wilkus’ skill and decency, the transition is made quite complicated due to not only the aliens not wanting to make things easy for their reluctant human hosts as well as vicious gangs holding things up. Soon however, what was supposed to be relatively straightforward soon turns absolutely terrifying when a workplace incident results in our intrepid hero accidentally being exposed to an unknown substance that soon begins to slowly, but surely start a….transformation of sorts. Thus we see that despite being sought after by the company he works due to being able to operate the extraterrestrial weaponry of the alien guests, and a crime lord for his hybrid DNA, Wilkus has now become the main player in a set of circumstances that soon promises to forever change how we view our alien tourists as well as their place on our planet.
Now this intriguing concept from writer/ film helmer Neill Blomkamp and produced by esteemed film auteur Peter Jackson is before anything else a gritty mix of both action and science fiction that also blends in both a faux documentary and traditional filmmaking style. Yet beneath the surface ingredients, one can find a truly pull no punches analysis on forcing a group to relocate and personal prejudices. Yes in the tradition of classic sci-fi, the film does give us an “out there” set of circumstances that would honestly tax even the most honest and decent people out there. Indeed it is only after months of discussion and trying to do right by the alien visitors that we see mankind try to aid them only to witness their encampment fall into anarchy that not only threatens to tear the city apart, but also pits 2 distinct groups against each other in order to help provide for even the basic needs of the aliens. Yet despite how unsettling the content may be, and unsubtle the message it’s trying to convey may be, this film’s themes still prove to be quite potent even when placed alongside a fair amount of gritty action and violence to say nothing of the riveting visual format and unrelenting take on this material. Yet despite the threat of the latter 2 possibly overwhelming everything else, I can thankfully say the allegorical message is never lost even when the film shifts from being absolutely riveting to quite heart wrenching and all the way to a more typical, but no less engaging final act.
Now however effective (or ineffective) the allegories this film contains aside, this is a film which has a narrative that is one which is constructed around the idea known simply as tragedy. Indeed be it tragedy of a personal, local, global, or universal scale, this concept is one that is integral to virtually every frame of this film which is then potently blended into a film that will make you feel a wide range of emotions. Indeed this is a film with a lightning quick first act which provides audiences with a smorgasbord of info in the form of both the documentary style of filmmaking as well as inserted in faxu news segments that terrifically insert necessary backstory as if it were all really unfolding in the world around us. In all fairness, the film does also rely on its allegorical material in order to bring out emotions of fury and regret whilst also showing an immense comprehension of the hows and whys involving the aliens’ living situation, their relocation, and humanity’s general feelings about the whole situation. Finally, in case you were worried that this was all talk and no action, District 9 also offers audiences quite a bit of unnerving suspense as well as potent and graphic action beats. Indeed bullets go overhead, bodies graphically are blown apart, and the moments of combat are terrific both in their choreography and execution equally. Yet even though how this is all going to work out can be determined way in advance, praise should be given to the director for managing to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout. Suffice it to say then that each ingredient contributes to District 9 feeling unique and novel and altogether they help to ensure that this film is an engaging and riveting cinematic outing that is one of 2009’s and even the decade known as the 2000s more unique films.
Now in addition to all of its other praiseworthy ingredients, it should also be noted that District 9 is a truly unique accomplishment when it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking. Indeed its special effects are effective though perhaps a bit clunky especially compared to something like Star Wars, but in all fairness this movie has also been handed the more challenging job of inserting organic creatures in the middle of a crime-ridden and grimy slum in South Africa and on a budget that is perhaps a fifth of Star Wars’ to boot. Also it should be noted that the faux documentary filmmaking style utilized by this film is also potently effective and helps add to the gritty visual work and unflinching tone that defines this cinematic experience. Also even though the cast of this film is not exactly made up of “known names”, each and every one of them, be they playing a human or alien, all manage to give absolutely phenomenal performances in this. One of the most special however has to be Sharlto Copley who plays his office drone turned riveting and gritty anti-hero wonderfully. Indeed by making his character gradually transform from the hunter to prey whilst also going through significant change on a physical and psychological level, Copley manages to showcase a delightful range and skill and prove his worth as a gifted thespian as well.
All in all despite the fact that it was producer Peter Jackson name which was literally attached to everything, especially in regards to the promotional marketing, surrounding this film, I am pleased to say that writer/helmer Neill Blomkamp’s movie manages to get past that and stand on its own with pride. Indeed this is not an example of a passion project that only got a name involved so people would pay attention to it, but rather is a unique, precisely constructed, awe-inspiring, and riveting ride featuring nearly every emotion possible including, but not limited to amazement, astonishment, and hopelessness. Indeed there have not been a lot of films which have hooked me right from the word go on the level that this film did. Indeed it is through the many levels that this film possesses that it is also able to come together magnificently in every way possible thus resulting in not only one of the summer of 2009’s most engaging film entries, but also one of the 2000’s most novel sci-fi viewing experiences as well. On a scale of 1-5 I give District 9 a solid 4 out of 5.