Already at #44 on the IMDb list of the top 250 movies ever made, District 9 is the debut feature of a major filmmaking talent: South African director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp. Earlier this decade, the 29-year-old wunderkind was handpicked by Peter Jackson to direct a mega-budgeted adaptation of the videogame Halo. When the project fell through, the team decided to expand a short film Blomkamp had made about alien visitors in Johannesburg. The result is a groundbreaking science-fiction dazzler.
It’s a very serious-minded, concise piece of work – the anti-Transformers. The movie swiftly lays out a backstory that rewrites recent history in some fascinating ways. In 1982, an alien ship stopped in midair over Johannesburg. The passengers were quickly rounded up and sent to live in a restricted area known as District 9. The present-day action concerns the efforts of Wikus Van De Merwe, a field hand for a major defense contractor, to relocate the aliens to another camp.
The film’s visual design is completely inspired, combining elements of a documentary with traditional cinematography. Matt Reeves did something similar last year with Cloverfield, but his monster movie had a more herky-jerky, Blair Witch-style, make-you-throw-up aesthetic. The images in District 9 are cleaner and sturdier. The “documentary” footage is on the same professional level as network news, so it’s astonishing when Blomkamp introduces unnatural elements into the mix. He avoids the self-conscious FX of Cloverfield, and in doing so he makes you feel as though you really are seeing aliens here on Earth.
These sure are some disgusting-looking aliens. If Predator and the arachnids from Starship Troopers made babies, they might look something like this. Blomkamp wants you to sympathize with their plight, but he doesn’t shy away from how repulsive they are. They live in squalor, and they clearly don’t know their table manners. (They eat cat food.) The scenes in the alien slum are so raw and real-looking that they might alienate (pun intended) some viewers. This is an uncompromising and unapologetic science-fiction horror movie, one whose brutal style is appropriate for a story that’s essentially a metaphor for South African apartheid.
The first 30 minutes are difficult to watch (in a good way). After that, the narrative turns into a thrilling chase, at which point District 9 becomes the most unlikely of buddy movies. The film is grounded in the astonishing, wonderfully self-effacing performance by Sharlto Copley as Wikus, a man who means well but clearly isn’t up to the task set before him. Wikus’s character arc, going from a bumbling idiot to a reluctant action hero, is unusually vivid for a genre movie. Forced into hiding, Wikus joins forces with an intelligent alien single dad named Christopher Johnson. Given that Copley was probably talking to himself on the set, the scenes between Wikus and Christopher are remarkably engaging and believable.
Note: The film is a complete triumph for the Vancouver Film School. In addition to the director and his co-writer, 25 members of the visual effects crew went to VFS. Special-effects driven movies are the best argument I can think of for the existence of film schools; to work on something like District 9, you need the training. This movie could be used as a recruitment tool not just for VFS, but for film schools in general.