I was starting to think that the Sci-Fi genre was headed on a downhill slide, and that intelligent, character driven drama and social commentary had been replaced by mindless explosions and unnecessary CGI. However, my faith about the direction of the genre has been restored with Neill Blomkampâ€™s District 9, a smart alien invasion thriller that has layers of depth below the surface.
Filmed part like a documentary, part like a narrative thriller, District 9 has a fascinating and original concept that is executed by an up-and-coming director who is likely destined for great things. The film does have some crucial flaws, and is not immune from many of the mistakes of a first-time director, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It is a visual and technical marvel and a deep breath of fresh air in a summer filled with malodorous garbage.
The film opens with post-narrative documentary footage that recaps the events we are about to see and reveals the truth about District 9. Years ago an alien spacecraft began hovering above Johannesburg, South Africa. It was later discovered that within the mysterious ship were thousands of trapped, malnourished alien creatures. District 9 was set up as a refuge for these creatures, but after fear set in among humans, it became neglected and turned into a slum.
Within this district is where most of the filmâ€™s action takes place. The MNU (the filmâ€™s proxy for the UN) sends Wikus Van De Merwe in to hand out eviction notices and inform the creatures, who are derogatively called â€œprawnsâ€ by humans, that they are being moved to a new site away from humankind. The bemused Wikus makes many muddled attempts to reason with the creatures and does not seem to understand their reluctance.
During a raid of an alien household, Wikus stumbles across a vile of something that he assures the viewers is not dangerous. Before he can finish his sentence, the vile explodes in his face, infecting him with a mysterious disease that simultaneously converts his left hand to a creature-like claw and makes him the most sought after commodity by the MNU. The belief is that the half-human, half-creature hybrid is the secret to unlocking the aliens’ weapon technology.
At the heart of the story, and one of the reasons that District 9 is a better than average Sci-Fi thriller, is a class struggle drama that is analogous to the Holocaust or, more appropriately, South Africaâ€™s Apartheid. Blomkamp presents the alien creatures as visually grotesque, but with human-like personalities. This helps the viewer identify with the mindset of the humans who fear the creatures, but also empathize with the creatures who are being oppressed.
Bad guys in the film are represented by the MNU officials, who treat the creatures like medical experiments and tools for political gain. There are also adversaries in the Nigerian gangsters who control District 9, trading weapons for food and filling the alien-inhabited slums with corruption. Neither of these antagonists get the necessary character development, but their place in the overall metaphor was clear. As much as the humans claim to want the aliens out, they need them for political and economical gain. Society cannot function properly without a class system, without some group being oppressed.
One of the problems with the film was that the concept was somewhat cheapened by the flamboyant fight sequences. While fantastically filmed and choreographed, the action scenes seemed to get a little repetitive as humans and creatures alike explode one after one. We didnâ€™t need to continually see a rear shot of a head exploding complete with blood spurts on the camera lens. Also, I thought that the gratuitous bloody death scenes somewhat degraded the class system metaphor by putting human life on an equal playing field with the creatures. If humans really deem the creatures a lower form of life, killing another human should not be executed with the same ease and carelessness as killing the prawns.
Despite the significantly lower budget, District 9 embarrasses Transformers, G.I. Joe, and other CGI powered films in terms of visual effects. The reason is because in those films, the animated sequences are so digitally perfected that they donâ€™t look real. The CGI robots in Transformers look better than the 70mm film versions of the humans and the landscapes, which creates a detached feeling. District 9 got it right by making the creatures look imperfect, which makes them blend in better with the mise en scÃ¨ne.
The sound mixing is also absolutely gorgeous. If you wait for the DVD or Blu-Ray, this will be one of those movies that makes you thankful for surround sound. The fast-paced action sequences and shaky-cam cinematography is made so much more effective by the sound effects that come from every angle. As the camera rotates away from one scene and onto the next, the sound from the former gradually fades as you still hear it in your peripheral hearing. When youâ€™re able to notice something as detailed as that, you know the sound mixing is solid.
See this movie with the expectation that it is a good Sci-Fi movie. Donâ€™t let the fanboys that have been vocal across the internet inflate your expectations â€“ this is not the science fiction film that will define this generation. However, if is an encouraging step in the right direction in a genre that definitely needed a boost.