Josh Reviews District 9
How many really great sci-fi films have there been in the last decade? It’s pretty slim, right? OK, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie was pretty good… but before that? I can think of Cloverfield (2008), Children of Men (2006), Serenity (2005), The Matrix (1999), Galaxy Quest (1999)… what else? Signs (2002) and Vanilla Sky (2001) have a sci-fi twist to them so maybe they count. That’s eight films. Not a pretty substantial list, huh?
Well, here’s one to add: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
You’re best off entering the film armed only with what little was revealed in the intriguing trailers: twenty years ago an enormous alien craft came to a halt in the sky over Johannesburg. Almost one million aliens (derogatively called “prawns” by the locals) are rescued from the powerless craft. These homeless creatures quickly develop into a new underclass in the city, dwelling in an enormous slum designated District 9.
That’s just the set-up. I went into the film completely clueless about the actual plot of the film (and what a delight that was, by the way, in this age of movie spoilers!) and I won’t spoil it for you either. I will tell you only that actor Sharlto Copley (a fresh face who I had never seen in a film before) does a tremendous job in the central role of Wikus van der Merwe. Mr. Copley takes Wikus (and the audience) along on a staggering emotional journey over the course of the film. When first we meet MNU (Multinational United) agent Wikus, he’s something of an affable buffoon, but his responses to the extraordinary events that follow are the meat and potatoes of the story , and when we leave him at the film’s end it’s hard to believe we’re leaving the same character. It’s a tremendous performance, and one the success of the film really hangs on.
Well, that and the film’s astounding visual energy. Mr. Blomkamp demonstrates terrific visual flair at the helm of this film. District 9 was famously made after the film version of Halo (which would have been produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Mr. Blomkamp, as District 9 wound up being) fell apart. District 9 was made on a very small budget (reportedly 30 million dollars) and shot in South Africa. I have no idea how Mr. Blomkamp and his team possibly pulled this film off on that tiny budget, but my hat is off to them. The film is a visual feast. I have no idea how they brought all the “prawns” to life — CGI? Make-up and prosthetics? Some combination? — but they are a phenomenal achievement. The aliens are completely believable — and they’re also, by the way, very well-designed. I’ve seen a lot of very derivative looking aliens in movies, but these creatures are quite unique and distinct-looking. Well done. There’s also some terrific action in the film’s climax — events build and build way past what one might have expected to see realized in such a small film. Bravo.
Of course, the very best sci-fi is not just a shoot-em-up action-adventure, but a tale with something to say, and District 9 definitely fits into that category. There are obvious parallels to apartheid in the plight of the “prawns,” but even that is just one layer. The emotional core of the film, in my mind, has to do with the moral responsibility of the observer, of the bystander, when faced with an enormous wrong. That is the key issue with which Wikus, and the audience, is forced to grapple, and the answers are not easy.
I’m so happy to have seen a new, great sci-fi movie! District 9 is a terrific achievement. Don’t miss it.