Back in 2005, you may or may not know that an attempt was made to greenlight a movie based on the video-game Halo. Peter Jackson signed on to produce the project, with Alex Garland initially taking reins on the script for its first draft, with subsequent drafts and polishes handed in by DB Weiss and Josh Olsen. Finally, and somewhat riskily, Jackson went with a young South African director – with Halo to be his feature-length debut – named Neill Blomkamp. The decision to hire him was based on a 6-minute short film that Blomkamp directed called Alive in Joburg. All set to go, they were missing one crucial component – money. Jackson had some, but to fund something on the scale of the Halo movie would require American studio backing – and that proved far too elusive. So they’re sitting there, all the elements of a sci-fi movie in place, except for the massive budget. The only logical thing to do, really, is...well, make a sci-fi movie. So goes the genesis of District 9.
Based on the aforementioned short film – search YouTube for it, you’ll find it - the plot revolves around a fictional alien landing that occurred in 1982 over the city of Johannesburg at the height of the apartheid government’s power. Neither an invasion force nor a first contact emissary, they seem to share more in common with worker ants than anything else, and these particular aliens had no queen to guide them. So they were herded into the area just below their ship – designated District 9 - in an effort to keep them separated from the population at large whilst they figured out what to do with them. But inevitably, crime and corruption filters into D9 and this – coupled with the ever-increasing number of prawns roaming D9’s streets, and their tendency to tear human heads from their respective spines – spurs the government to hire a large, private military contractor called Multinational United to move the aliens from District 9 to the newly founded District 10. Which just so happens to be little more than a concentration camp, 240 kilometres away from the nearest population centre. At the forefront of the effort is Wikus van de Merwe (to pronounce, replace W’s with V’s) an MNU employee charged with serving eviction noties to the aliens. When Wikus accidentally tangles with one of the smarter, more active prawns, he’s catapulted to the front of the wrong side of a violent neo-apartheid.
Sounds high concept, and it is. But the first thing that’ll strike is how – like all good sci-fi – it is incredibly relevant. Not just on the surface either, with the direct comparisons between South Africa’s own White/Black apartheid, but also as a commentary on racism to as a far back as the Holocaust. Van de Merwe is us, on the front line of it all, at first an antagonistic, sadistic and ignorant character, cackling with glee as prawn eggs ‘pop like popcorn’ after being bathed with a flamethrower. But despite shady and selfish motives, he eventually ends up switching sides, fighting side by side with aliens as he witnessess the poverty and corruption inflicted on District 9 by both MNU and the Nigerian Gangs who control it. To go alongside the apartheid allegory, there’s also a moral tale to be told, about the evils of allowing corporations to act like their word is law, especially when all they’re out for is a profit.
Of course, if the message of a film is sound – and Distrcit 9’s surely is – you can still toss it all away in the execution. But despite this being his debut feature, Blomkamp delivers to us a supremely assured film. A combination of both mockumentary and more cinematic footage, he charges it with a relentless pace both raises the heart-rate and glosses over the small but significant number of plot holes that gape in the script. He's also got a terricically dark sense of humour that is weaved into the film beautifully - from characters quipping about crapping themselves, to the gloriously over-the-top ways that the aliens' weapons dispatch foes, you'll frequently find yourself with a rather wide grin on your face,.
And it's all complemented by flawless special effects, Blomkamp evokes a gorgeously gritty and bleak image of Ghetto-ised Johannesburg – all filthy piles of rubbish and roughly built shacks, juxtaposed against the multi-national corporate HQ’s filling the skyline behind it. The aliens, whilst not the most believable effect you’ll ever see, are still intricately detailed and – more importantly – seamlessly integrated, both with the kinetic camera work and with the actors. Their expressive faces, as well as the performance capture technique, allow for a huge amount of empathy to be generated with them, and the sympathetic treatment of one alien in particular rivals the emotional oomph of any film you care to mention and then some.
Other details stand out too – the sound design, from the guttural clicks of the aliens’ native tongue to the pounding of machine guns, it’s all intensely believable, and whilst sound might not seem like the most important thing in a image-based medium, here it makes the film come alive. In every scene, you hear everything – chitinous exoskeleton scraping together, footsteps dragging through sand, robotic powered armour tumbling to the ground – and it all sounds magnificent.
The design of the alien weaponry and equipment is another stand-out, with the background behind the aliens and their technology not only being ingeniously conceived, but alos beautifully realised, with their organic/mechanical hybrid technology having a really squishy feel to it.
Kudos are also due to the actors – all relatively unknown South Africans down to the last man – who deal with both the weighty message and the relative whimsy of battling using alien weaponry rather admirably. Sharlto Copley does a great job with Wikus, despite the tablua rasa nature of the character. It is through his eyes that we witness what happens, and he does exactly what any of us would do in such a manner that it transcends the South African setting and simply becomes real for the 112 minutes that you’ll be in his company. David James is magnificently menacing as Kobus Venter, continuing the trend of villains with upside-down faces (that’s beards and shaved heads for those not keeping up) and throwing in a healthy dollop of sadism, just to keep it interesting. Those’re the only two performances you’ll notice, however the rest of the cast also do a great job of keeping the film grounded firmly in reality, from Vanessa Heywood as Wikus’ panicking wife to Louis Menaar as his over-bearing, MNU-running father-in-law.
If there is one complaint that can be levelled at District 9 – and there really is only one once you’ve gotten your head around the plot holes that will inevitably flood back to you after the credits roll – is that occasionally, and particularly during the first 25 minutes, there is no clear line between the mockumentary footage and the cinematic. Out of nowhere, a character in the scene will start talking to the cameraman. In others you’ll wonder why no-one seems to give two hoots about him. This may seem like a strange criticism given what I’ve said so far – but it’s akin to falling asleep whilst watching the news, and waking up half-way through Independence Day. Disorientating is the word of choice.
But it turns out that I’m not one to be fazed by one solitary, minor quibble that only really occurred to me after I watched the film. This is a proper slice of sci-fi – pulse-poundingly exciting, politically charged, and frequently, darkly funny, this is a cut above the rest of this summer’s cinematic entertainment. Blomkamp’s debut is so close to a masterpiece you can taste it – here’s to the difficult second album.