It's always a breath of fresh air after an onslaught of mediocre summer films to be treated to a movie worth talking about, especially when the movie can be accomplished with unfamiliar faces and an unseasoned director and screenwriter, Neill Blomkamp.. And why not? It's a formula that worked for Lucas back in 1977 and a formula that paid off well for J.J. Abrams in 2009. Nevertheless, it is the producer, Peter Jackson, who has certainly made his mark in the film industry and takes most of the pride for his latest incarnation, "District 9."
Walking into this film, I had no idea what to expect. I kept clear of reviews, yet I had been hearing some good buzz in various Internet circles. The previews came across as "Terminator/Transformers" meets the "Alien/Predator" franchise. I can assure you, get that picture out of your head because it is in no way near either of those franchise monsters. It's quite simply very well-crafted science fiction, done in a style similar to what we saw in Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later." Meaning, there's plenty of handheld camera action and a documentary feel that seamlessly transitions itself into a nail-biting action film.
The stage is set up in Johannesburg, South Africa, where for no explainable reason, an alien mother ship floats calmly above the city grounds. Even the insect-looking aliens, known as "prawns" for their prawn-like features, are unclear of the conditions that led to their arrival. (Personally, I thought they looked more Mantis meets Locus, yet there were some prawn features about them.) They have been trapped on Earth for a total of twenty years in a run-down slum settlement known as "District 9." They live in the worst living conditions imaginable, yet for an advanced intelligence, they live like the worst scavengers in the animal kingdom, consuming anything from people to cat food. As you can imagine, theses living conditions bring on a strong crime element, as many Nigerian gangs live among the rubbish and scum aliens.
The main lead, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is commissioned by the MNU to lead a task force to relocate all the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Wikus is a likeable enough gent, full of ambition, but he shows very little experience in his leadership. His relationship with his wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood), is no more than a brief backdrop spread throughout the movie, but I'm sure it's needed to show that Wikus is compassionate of the human condition. It is in a freak accident with a chemical that Wikus begins to change in an unpleasant manner. He soon finds himself an outcast with the ability to use the alien-designed weaponry. And as you can imagine, the heat begins to turn up.
For the first half of this film, the element of delivering the documentary feel is in full force. It's as if you're watching a foreign news affair on CNN or a History Channel special. Everything is set up to feel as real as possible, even to the very end. I can't say I was extremely excited in the first half and wondered if the buzz was a bit misleading. However, the second half transitions itself well into nail-biting action at its best! It's as if Jackson and Blomkamp rallied their troops at halftime and set up to go out with a bang. Trust me folks, it's one of those films that is well worth the wait while building tension in the beginning.
The movie may have that independent feel, but it is obviously well produced. The style is certainly something we've seen in many films today, but the story is what outweighs the method, and that can easily be overlooked. The blend of makeup and CGI is quite acceptable and certainly sets the tone of a gritty theme. It does a great job on building the right amount of apprehension and then keeps you nailed to your seat for the grand finale. It is a great combination of suspense, thrills, action, and science fiction, and it is very well thought out on many levels. It may not be 100% original in genre terms, but it is original in its own conception and deliverance.
Well, what may be its strengths can also be its weakness. I'm beginning to wonder if the onset of the handheld, shaky camera has not worn out its welcome. Not to mention, when are we going to see films in this genre where the aliens are not so crude, ugly, and dark? Plus, the theme of underground government dissecting and controlling a situation through the use of fear and violence does grow a little tiring after so many tries. Then again, without it, we may not have the excitement and tension that it produces. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see a situation with aliens a bit more hygienically clean and dignified. I would think with high intelligence comes better aptitude towards appearance. However, it seems that filmmakers like to play the ploy of chaos theory where intelligence can equate to revolting in nature.
I should note to the weakhearted, this film can be downright gross and disgusting at times. Not to mention, it is very serious and void of anything funny or humorous. There's literally nothing light about it, so if you can't handle a lot of blood, violence, and literally no laughs, then don't say I didn't warn you.
I can only hope we do not see spin-off films based on what Jackson and Blomkamp created. I honestly hope they don't bother with a "District 9, II." I feel this is one of those films that needs to stand on its own merits without the filmmakers trying to turn it into a cash-cow franchise. Even though I could see the alien itself as a toy line for Mattel, I honestly think it would be an ugly venture that could literally ruin the overall respect I have for the film.
By and large, "District 9" turns out to be an exhilarating summer treat for those filmgoers who love a good science-fiction movie. It is somber and rough in tone, but the story and outcome will keep you glued to your seat. It's certainly worth every dollar spent, and when the time comes, it will make a great addition to your sci-fi collection.