District 9 is this year’s Cloverfield, a shakey-cam alien-filled story with solid character development, great action and no big-name actors. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as I did Cloverfield, but it’s a film with huge wow-factor made for a relative pittance ($30M production cost – reportedly, some sources say in US$, some in NZ$) and seems to be pleasing audiences a great deal more than tentpole turds like GI Joe ($175M) and Transformers 2 ($200M).
District 9‘s story takes place in the unlikely setting of Johannesburg, South Africa in the near future. An alien mother ship has taken a position above the city and when it was opened, a million-and-a-half shrimp-like, bipedal alien creatures were found. These creatures, dubbed “Prauns,” are worker drones, unaccustomed to thinking for themselves and are mostly harmless, although strong enough to tear a human limb from limb if they wish. They are relocated to a slum in Jo-berg known as District 9 and have been living there for 20 years when the movie opens. An analogy to apartheid and refugee issues is inherent in the premise, but the movie doesn’t stop to savor any ironies.
Rather, after a rather rushed documentary-style opening explaining this backstory, the movie is pretty much straight balls-to-the-wall action, hung on a solid-if-simple story about Wikus van der Merwe (unknown Sharlto Copley, who acquits himself well), son-in-law of a major executive at MNU, who is put in charge of MNU’s relocation efforts. Wikus is an interesting character, both sympathetically nerdy and good-natured, but also a bumbler and a bigot towards the prauns.
Once Wikus realizes how bad MNU is and the terrible things they’ve been doing to the prauns, he allies himself with a praun with the slave name of Christopher Johnson who seems to be more intelligent than the others and has been working for 20 years to create the technology to return home and save his people. MNU want Wikus and Wikus wants to get to the mothership so Christopher can fix him. Much fighting ensues, including a sequence with Wikus in a mech suit that puts anything in Iron Man or Transformers to shame. James Cameron, a gauntlet has been thrown down at the feet of Avatar.
Director Neill Blomkamp deserves all the high praises that have been coming his way. This movie is absolutely incredible, and the effects aren’t just technically excellent (they aren’t perfectly seamless, but I’d say 95% as good as your average Hollywood effects movie) but also creatively excellent. The character animation is truly first rate. I think a lot of the praun stuff was done with mo-cap, but Christopher Johnson and his son have real acting and emotion to them, and even the mech suit has amazing acting. Blokamp’s sense of detail is really illustrated by the shot of the command module rising into the mother ship, locking in and then the particles of dirt that had floated up with it falling back towards the camera. So good!
This movie has seemed to come out of nowhere, and really it did, thanks to the excellent marketing. I wasn’t a big fan of either the “human only” ads or the first teaser trailer — but enough of my friends were that I’ve been aware of the film for months. Then, wanting to see the movie crystallized when I saw the huge positive buzz coming out of Comic Con. This was not a cheap marketing campaign — it might’ve cost more than the production of the film — but it was an effective one.
Based on the fanboy enthusiasm, I’m sure District 9 has launched a franchise. Microsoft, Fox and Universal must be kicking themselves that they let the Halo project they had with Blomkamp fall through.