Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka,
Kenneth Nkosi, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, William Allen Young
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: December 22, 2009
“I just want everyone watching this right now to learn from what has happened.”
As a passionate filmgoer in his early 30s, I have long wondered if the day would ever come when I got the chance to experience a film that could do for me what films like Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark did for audiences of that period. I wasn’t able to experience to get the full theatrical experience of those films during their initial release, and have always a movie experience that could somehow mirror those classic films in terms of breaking ground and leaving me in a complete state of awe. Now that I’ve seen District 9, dear reader, I am happy to say that I finally got such an experience.
Never before has a single film left me more riveted in so many different ways than this truly groundbreaking piece of filmmaking. In addition to giving me one of the most amazing cinematic experiences I’ll ever have the fortune of having, it has very much restored my faith in commercial filmmaking. How can one be a true film lover and not appreciate the fact that this dazzling film was only made for 30 million dollars (unheard of these days for a sci-fi epic), in addition to being the work of a first time director?
Other than Christopher Nolan, I can’t think of another filmmaker that has astounded me more with a debut project than Neill Blomkamp. The South African-born filmmaker had garnered a slow word of mouth buzz with a short film he made called Alive in Joburg, which caught the attention of no less than Peter Jackson, who believed in him so much as a born visionary, that he became a producer for what would make or break Blomkamp as a true filmmaker. As a result, I have an even greater respect for Jackson than I did before.
It’s the type of risk Hollywood is always seemingly afraid to make, and I’m hoping that this film’s immense success at the box office will change all of that. By that, I mean that this will hopefully lead to more films that defy expectations and apply a highly fresh approach to a particular genre. What Blomkamp has done for sci-fi action movies will long be remembered as a truly groundbreaking moment in the genre.
Never before has a film illustrated a more perfectly seamless transition between a first half and a second half that are so incredibly different from one another. The first portion of the film sets up the story in riveting documentary-like form, as we learn the history of an alien spaceship’s unexplained arrival in the middle of Johannesburg, South Africa. Through a collection of talking head interview bits, we come to learn that the aliens inside the ship were eventually moved out of the ship and exiled to a poorly run down slum known as District 9.
The government force responsible for executing this action is Multi-National United (MNU), which handles alien affairs on behalf of the human race. One of the offices top employees, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), has just been promoted to the rank of field officer on the occasion of MNU’s biggest operation yet regarding the alien population. By way of this operation, MNU plans to relocate 1.8 million aliens (or “prawn” as they are commonly referred to, based on their facial appearance) from District 9 to a newly developed safety zone so that life for humans is no longer difficult.
The way Blomkamp sets up this opening act is incredibly riveting, to say the least. A news crew follows Wikus’ every move as he and members of the military raid through District 9, handing out eviction notices to all alien residents. Though the film doesn’t incorporate the type of consistent first person camerawork displayed in the likes of Cloverfield or Quarantine, this represents the most effective use of it to date.
The major turning point in the film is when Wikus comes into contact with a mysterious substance while inspecting an alien home. He seems fine moments afterwards, but his condition only worsens during the remainder of the day. I don’t want to give away any further details on this plotline, because the end result of it is definitely one of the many surprises of the movie.
As a result of his condition, Wikus becomes a fugitive on the run. As the government, military and media have turned all humans against him (including his own wife), Wikus finds himself seeking help in the least likely of places. He ends up seeking refuge at the home of an alien named Christopher Johnson, who may hold the key in getting Wikus what he needs to cure himself of what he has.
This marks the major turning point in the story and, as I mentioned earlier, I honestly cannot recall another movie comprised of two different acts where the transition was so incredibly flawless. Blomkamp and his amazing effects team have lined up some of the most phenomenal action in the film’s second half. How phenomenal, you ask? Put it this way, take all of the action in Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and you still won’t reach the effective level of the action of this film’s climatic scenes.
Which brings me back to the film’s budget. I knew going into the movie that it cost 30 million, and yet as I watched it, I swore I was witnessing a production that was around $150-$175 million. The level of effects work and authenticity that went into this film is simply mind blowing, and its rare low budget makes it even more so.
Another amazing element is the notion that the movie provides a most effective commentary on race relations in South Africa by way of a fascinating plot device. And never once does it feel preachy in the slightest. For combining effective storytelling with a gut-wrenching action spectacle, the screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell is definitely deserving of Oscar attention, as are many other areas of the film.
I can’t critique the film without mentioning what may just be the most incredible special effect of the entire movie; the amazing performance of newcomer Sharlto Copley as Wikus. A longtime friend of Blomkamp’s, Copley’s only prior acting experience was in the director’s earlier short film. Watching him in this complex character, one you start out despising but grow to sympathize with by the end of the film, is very much the epitome of watching a star being born.
Another performance that shouldn’t go without mentioning is that of Jason Cope who, along with astonishing CG work, brings the alien character of Christopher Johnson to vivid life. He and his little son known as Junior, may just be the most sympathetic alien/creature characters ever created. And it’s never felt more riveting to root for the non-humans as it does here!
To sum it all up, District 9 is by far my pick for Best Film of 2009, and I’m truly hoping that it will garner Oscar nods in multiple categories. With there being ten candidates for Best Picture, this one definitely has a shot! Even more so that Avatar, which was amazing in its own right, I find Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut to be the groundbreaking movie achievement of this year, and possibly this decade!
To the fine folks at Sony, all I can say is BRAVO! Having been floored by the theatrical experience this film provided me, I walked out just knowing that when it hit Blu-ray, the result would be just as monumental. Sure enough, I was proven right in so many ways. Right from the opening frame, the 1080p basically immerses you in this world by way of the outstanding picture presentation. Every hint of detail in every single frame is absolutely outstandingly perfected, and for a film like this where so much occurs in the background, effects wise, that’s most crucial. The blending of actors and the effects work will blow your mind in HD. And I’m very happy to say that my favorite single shot in any film this year (the helicopters ascending towards the alien spacecraft) delivers the same phenomenal impact it did when I first saw it! Astonishing in every possible way!
And it doesn’t end there! The movie’s sound mix is one for the history books. In other words; on Blu-ray, your ears will be rocked to the core! What’s even more astonishing is the handling of sound in the first half, before the gargantuan action kicks in. The sound of the alien dialect alone provides tremendous sound quality, and the setting of District 9 itself provides many instances of background noise and effects for the channels to work with. But when that second half kicks in, my friend you are in for a home theater experience you will never forget. Without spoiling details, let’s just say that when that alien spacecraft comes to life, astonished doesn’t even begin to describe to reaction you’ll have!
A film like this is in total deserving of the best that Blu-ray has to offer as far as extras go, and Sony should be applauded for throwing in some truly remarkable kicks for this release. First off, we get two options for the menu; human menu or alien menu (personally, I prefer the latter). Among the extras, we have a great commentary track with director Neill Blomkamp, Deleted Scenes, a three-part documentary titled “The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log”, as well as four additional featurettes; “Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus”, “Innovation: Acting and Improvisation”, “Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9” and “Alien Generation: Visual Effects”. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a neat feature called “Joburg from Above”, which is an interactive map of satellite and schematics of the world of District 9.
The disc also comes with a playable PS3 game demo of God of War III, where in which you can unlock an exclusive making of the game featurette. And lastly, there is a bonus disc featuring a Digital Copy version for your PC/portable device.
A film like District 9 illustrates completely why I love movies, in addition to proving that every once in a while the medium can turn up something completely spectacular and utterly special. For me, it is hands down the best film of 2009, as well as one of the best Blu-ray presentations to date! If you have Blu-ray access, I can’t stress to you enough how important it is that you add this to your collection!