Validation can be a sweet thing. With Neill Blomkamps’ name forever attached to the defunct Peter Jackson/Fox/Universal Halo project, the director may have had a little more to prove with his big-screen directorial debut. Blomkamp’s previously deft incorporation of realism and fantasy as played out in a wide variety of commercials and shorts shouldn’t have left any doubt to his skill, or at least an idea that he was a director to be on the watch for.
As he expands on his striking “real world” style in District 9 (D9), Blomkamp could have easily run the risk of teetering into the overdone faux-documentary territory of Cloverfield and Quarantine. However, Blomkamp achieves something a little more pleasantly fragmented, cobbling linear storytelling with cinema verite for a result that’s altogether more satisfying.
D9 opens with a montage combination of documentary, news feed, talking head and security cameras which quickly explain the situation at hand: Aliens are here and have been for 20 years. Colloquially known as “Prawns” (but too large to dip in cocktail sauce) they’re different, perceived as threatening and, for the safety of Johannesburg’s citizens, must be removed from their refugee camp slum, District 9. It’s here we’re introduced to Wikus Van De Merwe (this is South Africa, after all), a bumblingly cheerful bureaucrat from Multi-National United, the quasi-government/contractor organization tasked with monitoring the aliens. As it turns out, Van De Merwe’s received a hand up via some good old fashioned nepotism. Unfortunately, the hand up is MNU’s assignment to oversee the eviction of all “Prawns” in District 9 and to move them to a de facto concentration camp. The film eventually coalesces from newsfed documentary to linear storytelling as we follow Van De Merwe and a prawn named “Christopher” into the core of the film’s best-when-seen-not-told plot. Needless to say, it involves aliens, gunfights, nefarious coverups, escapes and even a little mutation.
As a sci-fi film, D9 is smart. With its South African setting and subsequently easy parallels to apartheid, D9 will inevitably draw a lot of talk about the similarities between the aliens, immigration and the idea of might making right, but D9 feels like it’s less concerned about the societal issues and more about crafting a foundation with which to paste an adventure story in a realistic world– a world where sympathies can be earned with a plausibility bred from familiarity. It’s here Blomkamp’s approach helps D9 succeed in both the previously mentioned brains and some surprising humanity courtesy of both newcomer Sharlto Copely and some very strong CGI performances. D9 establishes real characters with relationships that drive clearly understood motivations.
But this isn’t Pride & Prejudice— exploding and chasing abounds. D9 is a gritty, serious adventure where the action, at times very gooey, is serviced to the story and not as a set piece unto itself. Incidentally, that doesn’t make it any less fun, just more so.
This might seem high praise, but District 9 easily stands as one of the best wide-release films of the summer– if not the year. With it’s sci-fi bent and gritty realism, it may not be for everyone*– and while it doesn’t break any molds, it has been a very long time since we’ve seen a mainstream action/sci fi film arrive with an attempt at being fresh, inventive and unaffiliated with a toy/comic property. For that alone, D9 should be both applauded and seen.
But don’t just take my word for it– for more insight, see Andy’s review below.
*The “R” rating should tell you one thing: this is not ET. This is not Star Wars. This is F-bomb dropping, gritty, and at times, explosively violent movie that wasn’t made for anyone who still gets nightmares from watching Disney movies. The gore isn’t dwelt upon as much as it’s a biproduct of battling enemy weaponry that leaves slick, splattery messes, but it is surprising in its unexpectedness.