DISTRICT 9 – Blu-ray review

30 minutes after exposure.

I’m sitting there watching “District 9” thinking that the initial “documentary” part of the movie feels even more amateurish and disjointed the second time around–especially on a smaller screen and without the communal experience to help you get through it. The hand-held cameras, the questions about the time-frame (some people interviewed seem to know the outcome, others don’t), and the uneasy similarity to other rough-shot documentaries all start to take their toll on my patience. I squirm. I fidget. It’s also not the best format to showcase Sharlto Copley, who plays lead character Wikus Van De Merwe, a scientific bureaucrat from MNU who’s been given the job of “alien czar” in charge of relocating an ever-multiplying population of aliens from their District 9 shantytown to another, worse, and farther-removed place.

Then, not long after the hero has been exposed to a black fluid in a silver canister that causes goop to “bleed” from his nostrils and fingertips, the clunky documentary format falls off as easily as his fingernails. That’s when things get rolling, and when I find myself getting more interested.

The first time I saw this film it felt as if it was preaching a message. Forget for a moment that screenwriter-director Neill Blomkamp is a Dutch South Afrikaner who was born in Johannesburg. When we get a sci-fi story about an alien spaceship that hovers over Johannesburg–not Paris, London, or New York–and stalls, so that a team of scientists and military types break into the ship and find a malnourished bunch of aliens that they promptly relocate to a Guantánamo-style contained space, the story already begins to feel like a social fable. After all, the spaceship is casting a shadow over the place that gave us the word “apartheid.”

But the aliens develop a fetish for cat food (okay, so now the fable expands to social comment about our poor and elderly?), and that creates a black-market demand satisfied by the Nigerians in Johannesburg, who are portrayed as opportunistic, backward thugs who believe in eating the body parts of the aliens. Not surprisingly, the movie was eventually banned in Nigeria. So what message is the filmmaker sending when both the white elite and a black gangster element are interested in profiting from the misery of the aliens–the MNU because this private corporation has been given the government contract to handle the alien problem, and the Nigerians because they keep getting weapons for cat food, hoping to stockpile the weapons no humans can operate (because of DNA incompatibility) until such time as they eat enough alien parts to pull the triggers? I’m still not sure.

If you think about it, though, it was inevitable that a filmmaker would finally use the third option for alien encounters. After all, we’d seen the innocuous meeting in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and the aggressive aliens from “Independence Day.” Now we get an alien encounter where the humans dominate, in a very inhumane way.

Once we get past the documentary mode that’s used as a frame for the film, “District 9” moves along with interestingly rendered aliens and special effects, driven by a plot that’s reminiscent of “The Fly.” However, one main difference between the Jeff Goldblum sci-fi fantasy and this one is that there isn’t the same level of character development or apparent moral engagement. If there were, I probably wouldn’t think the film’s message so neon-bold but flickering-bulb imprecise. I’m still not sure why Wikus’ father-in-law gave him the high-profile job of relocating the aliens, and why, when he discovers his son-in-law is suddenly a mutant, he orders him to be “harvested” and the chase is on. And if we’re going to have Wikus team up with an alien the way that opposites worked together in “48 Hours” or every buddy cop film that features a loose cannon, I’d like to see a little more interaction between the two characters to justify and add texture to the alliance.

But I can see why Peter Jackson produced the film and put his moniker on it. Except for those question marks, “District 9” is an entertaining sci-fi alien flick that just isn’t sure whether it wants to be a grand epic in the style of “Close Encounters” or “Independence Day,” or a more unassuming film. Meanwhile, I’m not sure about the “R” rating for “bloody violence and pervasive language.” It seems like I’ve seen worse language and the same level of blood or violence in some PG-13 films.

Action-film lovers will be sated around the middle and end of this film, and will probably hide in the kitchen making up a snack tray until the guns start blasting. CGI alien-lovers ought to enjoy the animation of these creatures, even if, anatomically, they seem to be an anomaly with zero apparent digestive system. No wonder they crave cat food. And the features? These guys have faces that only their mothers can love . . . and Davy Jones or Predator. Which is to say, the creature design from the waist up is familiar. What’s interesting, though, is the derogatory term “prawns” that evolves in this film to describe them.

112 minutes after exposure.

I enjoyed it, for the most part. Ultimately, of all the questions that this film raises, one of them burns more than the others: After 20 years of humans being unable to use the alien weapons or technology, why would the MNU want to kill the person who is finally able to pull the trigger? The easy (but still illogical) answer is that humans are the villains in this film, not the aliens. And understanding just isn’t on their radar. It’s a fable. I’m just not sure exactly what kind, because the one message that comes through loud and clear is that you don’t mess with fly DNA and you don’t hold a dangerous canister full of alien goop too close to your face.

“District 9” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and fills out the entire screen on a 16×9 television. That gives us more aliens-to-the-inch than a narrower aspect ratio, and for the purposes of this film, that’s a good thing. The images are inconsistently rendered–but by design, not by flaws in post-production or AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. Get past those deliberately fuzzy, “Blair Witch Hunt” scenes in the first 30 minutes and “District 9” is a visual treat. Though it’s a gritty film set in a bleak, near-futuristic landscape, there’s enough sheen and color to make it feel bigger budget, substantial, even rich. Close-ups on Wikus and the humans are so detailed that you can see every pore, every hair. What’s more, when the close-ups focus on the prawns you can see the same level of incredible detail. There’s no attempt to hide CGI work, because there’s no need to. Even the action shots aren’t manipulated to hide any defects. Aerial shots of the slumdog shacks are also beautifully detailed. And there’s no touch-up or image manipulation or artifacts to mess things up.

“District 9” has a superior audio that’s transferred at high volume to prompt consumers to play it loud. And the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack in English or French is really a resonant one that has more distribution across the speakers than I’ve seen in quite a while. During the shootouts and explosion scenes especially, the soundtrack is full of snap, crackle, and pop. Dialogue, background sounds, and effects are nicely balanced, too. The bass has a nice low rumble to it, but not so much that it vibrates or creates a distraction. The high notes, meanwhile, are crisp and precise. In other words, it’s a rocking soundtrack that fills the room with dynamic sound. An English audio description track is included for the visually impaired, along with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Hindi.

In addition to the Digital Copy (compatible with PC, PSP, Mac or iPod), and a Godwar PlayStation 3 game demo, there’s a nice bundle of bonus features. Blomkamp talks about his previous film relationship with Copley and how this bigger project in part grew out of a smaller one. As he talks, you start to get more of a feel for what he was trying to say that didn’t exactly come across in the film as articulately. Peter Jackson fans will also be happy to hear that Blomkamp talks about his producer’s involvement in the project. There’s a lot here to digest and process, in other words.

Then there’s “The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log” which contains three segments: “Envisioning District 9” (8 min.), “Shooting District 9” (16 min.), and “Refining District 9” (10 min.), all of which cover the standard pre-production, production, and post-production phases of crafting the film. It’s average in its scope and presentation, whereas the commentary was slightly above-average.

“Joburg from Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9” allows viewers to access places on a map in order to see the set and production design, as well as costume and character design. There are a lot of places to click on, and some pretty good pay-offs, ranging from sketches to clips, and plenty of explanatory information. The description of the 3D rendering is especially interesting.

Other features include 22 deleted scenes that run about a minute each; “Metaphorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus” (10 min.), which shows the make-up used; “Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9,” an unusual feature that zeroes in on the actors’ dialogue improv and how it meshed with the director’s vision; “Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9” (13 min.) gives more on the set, character, and prop design; and “Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9” (10 min.) covers the ground the title promises.

“District 9” is BD-Live/Cinechat-enabled, and Internet-connected viewers can choose to watch movieIQ, which offers “up to date” scenic details and cast bios, which, as we all know, fluctuate like stocks, or else why have this feature?

Bottom Line:
Despite its shortcomings, “District 9” is an engaging sci-fi romp that features solid CGI work and almost enough action to compensate for the lack of logic and character development. And yes, it looks dynamite in 1080p Blu-ray.