Gas and dust flows together ever tightening to condense into heat and extreme mass. A star is born. That’s how it felt watching Neill Blomkamp’s invigorating debut feature, “District 9.” A sci-fi actioneer that concentrates more on character and tone than it does on plot this film is a zenith of the genre – smart, fun, fast paced, and thought-provoking.
Taking place in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, “D9” follows a civil servant, Wikus Van de Merwe, as he tries to relocate the whole of the titular district’s million plus population of Prawns, the aliens who came to Earth in 1982, to District 10. During the forced evictions Wikus is exposed to a fluid that brings on some interesting changes in his physiology. He becomes the focus of a manhunt because of his unique ability to use the advanced biometric weaponry of the Prawns.
The set up of the film takes a lot of exposition to relate the back story, but Blomkamp deftly employs a verite documentary style with fake interviews and stock footage that quickly immerses the audience in the world, while setting up a realistic tone, and a quick pace.
It also introduces us to Wikus as a man of below average intelligence, but definite charm despite his Ned Flandersy demeanor. We meet him just as he is promoted to the head of the task force charged with evicting the Prawns by his powerful father-in-law. He is hard to dislike even though he is a bit racist, and overly officious. Played impeccably by new comer Sharlto Copley it quickly becomes obvious that Blomkamp is not the only star in the making in “District 9.”
Wikus’ journey from cog in the system to hero of the little man… or alien as it were, is obvious from the beginning, but the moments where he back slides are the most interesting. The slight shifts in his attitudes oscillate from selfish to altruistic and back without feeling forced. Rather it makes Wikus all the more human even as he loses his humanity.
Based on a short entitled “Alive in Joburg” by Blomkamp in 2005, the script was written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. The Prawns are obvious analogs to the black population of South Africa during apartheid. As Wilkus’ physiology changes so does his psychology putting forth the idea that it is impossible to understand oppression unless you actually are the oppressed.
The script is solid, though does start to run out of story steam toward the end, and would have devolved into an action packed explosion fest if not for Blomkamp’s whip smart direction, and tight editing. From frame one the tone is established as gritty and realistic in an alternate universe, and the anxiety pushed forth with the constant hand-held photography helps up the anty. The final climax is so fun and action packed that some viewers might not be expecting something so violent. There is a use of a pig as a weapon that brought cheers from the audience.
Cronnenberg’s “The Fly” and Cameron’s “Aliens” are definite influences here, as well as some Peter Berg’s visual stylings. The film is laced with visual effects that seem far outside the reported 30 million dollar budget, which meld so seamlessly with the live action photography one might think they actually missed the arrival of the aliens twenty-eight years ago. Blomkamp’s history in visual effects and commercial directing is obvious in light of the technical accomplishments of “District 9,” but he handles the emotional scenes with Copley with the confidence of a feature film veteran.
Putting it all together “District 9” emerges as a triumph of science fiction. The total confidence and technical mastery of the film is a harbinger of a huge career. After this Blomkamp will have his pick of projects, big or small, and if he can pull them off with the aplomb that is displayed here we truly have witnessed the birth of a new star.
El Luchador Rating: 5 out of 5 (5 out of 5)
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)