A blog about movies and filmmaking.

DISTRICT 9 is the Summer movie, all other Summer movies wish they could be

In sci-fi on August 14, 2009 at 4:00 am

Usually, we get a movie that’s slightly dystopic, and a bit of a downer, more in the fall or closer to the end of the year. (See the soon to be released THE ROAD, and in previous years THE FOUNTAIN and CHILDREN OF MEN.) Especially when it’s a medium-range budgeted movie, by unknown directors and containing zero stars. Most of the Summer fare are licensed properties – or sequels thereof – that are made for hundreds of millions of dollars with the hopes of earning back hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. But, here in the middle of August, in the declining weeks of the summer of 2009, we get a blockbuster delivered to us – made for a measly $30 million dollars (that was probably spent just on one of “The Devastator’s testicles in TRANSFORMERS 2) – and it puts every other action-adventure, sci-fi genre, big-budget blockbuster to shame. And that’s DISTRICT 9, the new movie produced by Peter Jackson, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, co-written by Terri Tatchell and if there are any higher beings out there; this movie will earn more than any other movie as well.

The story – based off an original short film that Blomkamp made in 2005 called, ALIVE IN JOBURG – is about Johannesburg, South Africa, where 20+ years ago a giant space ship floated over the city and stopped. It sat there for a couple of weeks when the government, or maybe the UN, decided to cut their way in to see what was going on with it. Inside they found thousands of sickly, insect-like aliens. Trying to do the humanitarian thing, they shepherd the aliens off the ship and into internment camps, to help the sick and nourish the hungry. Of course, over the years this effort turns to scorn as the aliens show no real initiative in integrating themselves – and eventually are shunned from the possibility – and seem mostly to be simple minded creatures who have no real mind of their own. The area that they’ve been given to stay in turns into a slum shantytown. They enjoy destroying things, for their own pleasure; seem to have no sense of boundaries or regard of property (meaning, they don’t understand being on someone else’s land, or that material items have to be bought – sounds kind of familiar, actually.). It’s discovered that cat food is considered a delicacy, or having some kind of psycho-tropic effect on the “prawns” as the aliens come to be known.

So, when our story picks up, we’re following an MNU operative named Wikus Van De Merwe – who is put in charge of an operation of moving the aliens from District 9 (the camp the aliens live in) to a new camp hundreds of Kilometers from Johannesburg. Wikus, who heads out to personally get the aliens to sign papers stating they understand they’re being evicted from their homes – signature meaning that if they touch the paper, they’ve signed it – is escorted along with armed guards who seem much happier to just shoot the aliens than be diplomatic. And I have to say that Wikus is really only a step above them in his relation to the aliens.

The movie is really a roller coaster ride in the sense that we totally don’t know where the movie’s going – or even when it does go in a direction that seems like a normal action movie would, it builds up tension to make you believe that something else is going to happen. There’s also humor, mostly derived from Wikus’ never-ending way he seems to see everything from the eyes of a bureaucrat. In one moment, he finds a very large, stash of alien hardware and all he can say is, “this is very illegal. Definitely, a big fine.” The action, in it’s violence – which is quick and dirty and messy – is not built up to show the “awesomeness” of seeing things blow-up, although it is shocking and creates that feeling of needing to laugh or cheer. But, it never revels in it, and certainly – and especially from the viewpoint of Wikus – never says that violence is the best way. Although, sometimes, someone just needs to be blown to pieces.

The movie is shot – and pretty unnoticeably – in both a documentary-like style and a more filmic way. There are little titles and things that continue to pop-up throughout the movie, which reminds you how this whole story is being watched. We also get a lot of inter-cutting of news footage, and the movie is book-ended with “interviews” with people who seemingly have studied this situation. It makes for a very enjoyable experience, and some of the language of the interviews, kind of hints at where the movie might go. The parts that are more like an actual feature – which is pretty much the second half of the movie, or the few times we actually leave the humans to see what some of the aliens are up to – and is presented fantastically. The special effects in this movie are fantastic. The giant mother-ship, that floats over the city is almost always kept in a distant haze, to show that it’s unreachable. The “Prawns”, are beautifully designed and while being completely alien, are imbued with a humanity and empathy, that most of the human characters don’t even get.

Speaking of the human actors, Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus, is amazing. He has the smarm and ineptitude of a Michael Scotts from THE OFFICE; and he’s still a seemingly likable guy, if a bit naive on what his job and company mean. It’s as the story goes along, and we continually see that Wikus is mostly out for himself, that it’s in Sharlto’s performance that we can still root for him. His main antagonist is Koobus Venter, played by David James, who is the leader of the mercenary squad sent in to enforce the decree of the alien’s eviction. Koobus, would seemingly rather see the aliens dead than moved – and even early on in the movie, seems to show a disliking of Wikus. James is here to play the villain’s role – and be badder than the rest of the humans who aren’t really shown to be any good – and he does a great job. The last two real characters in the movie are two of the aliens that we get to know as the movie goes on. Sort of in the vein of BUCKAROO BANZAI and ALIEN NATION, the aliens are given more human sounding names – although here they tend to at least make sense – and the main alien is named Christopher Johnson. He’s the only alien, really, we get to see on his own without any human interaction, and he is sort of the real hero of the piece, even if we don’t know what his intentions are at the beginning of the movie. He also has a son (who, I’m only calling a son, because that’s what he’s called in the movie, but I have to admit to not knowing whether the baby alien is a boy or a girl, just as I’m not sure, besides the sort of gender specific name, whether Christopher Johnson is a male or female of the species.), who seems very interested in learning about their home-plant and seems to take a liking to Wikus when he finds his way into their house. The aliens are given total alien, if only insect-like, features and yet are completely sympathetic in their emoting and posture. Which, embues the movie with an emotional connection that has been lacking in nearly every other movie this Summer.

Then there’s the fact that this movie is an actual, honest to goodness, R-Rated feature, meant for grown up audiences! There is a plethora of “F-bombs” dropped. People, aliens and other various creatures and items explode into bloody and messy goop. This movie revels in the fact that it’s the under-dog; and it shows the big dogs that it’s got bite. DISTRICT 9 covers territory presented in most of the other big movies from this summer; the giant robots of TRANSFORMERS 2, the war/battle scenes of GI JOE and man versus oppressors in WOLVERINE. It’s got technology better than STAR TREK, and a human/inhuman story more effective than TERMINATOR: SALVATION. And DISTRICT 9 puts them all to shame. I wanted to turn around and watch it again, as soon as I stood up from my seat. Can I claim that this is the best movie of the year? No. But, it just might be my favorite.

Go see it, then go see it again.

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  1. Great review. You and I see eye to eye on this one.

    When you said, “Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus, is amazing. He has the smarm and ineptitude of a Michael Scotts from THE OFFICE…” I knew that we were on the same page.

    And yes, I have to see it again.

    • Thanks. There was another analogy for Wikus that I had thought of…Oh, Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle…I checked out your site, and look forward to your review also. 🙂

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