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District 9

So Tophat recently mentioned that he tried to watch the GI Joe movie but had to stop because it sucked.  I haven’t seen the film, but I feel like this is fair.  In fact, the only person I know that actually saw the movie pretty much agreed.  His verdict was that yes the movie was bad, but also, it had distractingly terrible CGI.  This led me to remember that District 9, which came out around the same time as GI Joe, had brilliant CGI.  GI Joe had a budget of 175 million dollars.  District 9?  30 million!  First time director Neill Blomkamp takes that smaller budget and does wonders.  Aliens on Earth has been done, but never quite like this.  Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings directing fame,  personally picked Blomkamp to direct the Halo movie, which ended up not happening.  Jackson then told him to make any film he wanted.  Clearly, Jackson had massive confidence in Blomkamp’s skills as a filmmaker.  He was right.

Back to the whole aliens on Earth thing.  These aliens (nicknamed Prawns in the film due to their appearance) did not invade earth in a war effort.  Nor did they come seeking peace and knowledge trading.  A massive ship full of them essentially broke down over Johannesburg, South Africa.  After a good chunk of ominous hovering, us human types went in and found a bunch of sick and aimless Prawns.  So, as humans tend to do, we brought them down to the surface and helped them at first, then soon put them up in what was basically a prison camp, known as District 9.  Apartheid anyone?  The film follows one Wikus Van De Merwe, who works for Multi National United, or MNU.  MNU is responsible for overseeing District 9 and Wikus is tasked with leading a huge operation of moving all of the aliens to a new home, since at this point District 9 is about as bad as slums get.

This plot setup is achieved quickly and brilliantly by some documentary style filming.  Talking heads, news reports, and interviews with MNU employees all presented in a everybody knows the camera is their kind of way (think The Office) had me engrossed almost instantly.  The choice by Blomkamp to present the story this way is effective not only as a way to introduce the situation, but also to establish a public persona for some characters (Wikus in particular) that can later clash with how they really are.  This is much more effective than conjuring up a reason to have a press conference.   So while the first half of the film is shot this way, the second takes a much more traditional approach.  There is a distinct turning point in the film at which this transition takes place.  The first time I saw the film I never even really noticed the transition on a conscious level.  The second time I was much more aware of the shift.  It’s one of those things that sounds bad on paper, to go from characters being aware of the camera to just suddenly not being aware, but I never felt like it detracted from the film.  If you can go with Prawns living in Joburg and just LOVING to eat cat food, you can live with some filmmaker tricks.

First time actor Sharlto Copley plays Wikus.  It is absolute lunacy that this is the first role Copley played, other than a short also by Blomkamp that is actually set in the same world as District 9.  He is beyond impressive.  I won’t touch upon major plot points, but Wikus as a character has an incredible arc, going through many changes and emotions, and Copley nails them all.  When we first meet Wikus he’s fumbling to attach a microphone to his shirt to do an interview (in that documentary style I was talking about).  He seems nervous, awkward, and uncomfortable in front of a camera.  I actually thought to myself “look at this guy they got to play this nerd, he won’t be in the movie long, totally clichéd character.”  Well, chalk one up for Blomkamp over me, because it turns out he’s the main freaking character.  Wikus as a character is not a sci-fi hero or villain.  He’s just a normal guy put into some insane circumstances. Copley inhabits that role perfectly.

 

Copley as Wikus.

The aliens in the movie have a language.  It’s grunts and clicks, inhuman sounds that are vaguely unpleasant.  In a nice touch that makes District 9 have some mythology behind it we learn that the aliens have learned to understand english but are unable to pronounce it and that the humans have learned to understand the alien language as well.  So conversation is possible.  I spoke earlier about the 30 million dollar budget this movie had.  It looks much much MUCH more expensive.  Part of that reason is with Peter Jackson producing your movie, you probably get WETA (his special effects company that did work on some little project Jackson did called Lord of the Rings) at a pretty heavy discount.  It SHOWS.  Two of the main characters in this movie are aliens, an adult prawn named Christopher Johnson and his son.  The movement and emotions, yes emotions, from these initially hideous looking aliens is amazing.  When little Chris asks his dad how many moons their world has, I wasn’t thinking that these were aliens anymore.  It was an actual touching moment between father and son.  That WETA and Blomkamp were able to have moments like those in the film without them feeling hokey, silly, or just plain look weird, is a testament to how well the aliens fit into the realistic setting of the movie.  When the action reaches a boiling point in the climax of the film, the effects go from mushy father/son moments to straight up sci-fi battle awesomeness.  GI Joe wishes it had action scenes half as cool as this.

District 9 is an impressive piece of science fiction.  It’s a fresh take, in a fresh setting, on aliens.  It has fantastic special effects and uses them full-bore for some great action set pieces.  But none of that is why you should see the film.  The film is a must see because the world will be hearing from Blomkamp and Copley again.  The fact this is the first film for both of them is the most impressive achievement of District 9.  If this is the result of a 30 million dollar budget and a director learning the ropes of directing a feature film, what comes next has me salivating.  Kudos to Peter Jackson for recognizing talent and giving it a forum to work in.  What’s 30 million dollars between friends?

Wikus and Christopher Johnson the Prawn. How well these conversations flow is incredible.

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One Response

  1. Nothing beats a fresh look at Sci-fi in a location often overlooked in the genre. I was blown away by the quality of this movie and Copley’s performance. The story is great, the CGI is great, and the cat food is great. Definitely worth a look.
    Though I’d be careful about the whole “If he does great with $30 million why not give him $300 million.” That hasn’t worked out so well in the past. Many an independent film maker has withered under the hot glare of Hollywood lights.

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