Late summer is typically dumping grounds for forgettable blockbuster wannabes and never-weres (see: G.I. Joe), but this August is a bit different. With A Perfect Getaway working surprisingly well last week and Inglorious Basterds coming soon, audiences have a variety of quality choices to choose from. But it's District 9 that will likely emerge as the out-of-left-field winner, a slick sci-fi action-drama out of South Africa with few recognizable actors and a budget of only $30 million.
District 9 is set in Johannesburg, where, 20 years ago, a gigantic spacecraft appeared overhead. After weeks of no contact, the government finally went inside and discovered a species that were soon dubbed "prawns" for their shellfish-like appearance. For their own health and safety, they were relocated to a slum district of the city. Over the years, however, the city and much of the world has turned against the seemingly chaotic creatures, setting up a new form of apartheid and isolating the creatures. In response to increasing unrest, the government has hired a private firm to go in and relocate the creatures to District 10, an area 200 miles away. Needless to say, moving 1.8 million aliens will not be as easy as everyone thinks.
Directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 is a feat on its own, a visual feast that blends shaky cam footage with interviews, security footage and other camera forms to create a "documentary" of the events that unfolded over the course of a few days following the attempted removal of aliens from District 9. Once again, we have proof that huge blockbusters don't have to be made for $200 million, as the miniscule budget utilized here has resulted in fairly strong performances, a good screenplay and excellent special effects. The aliens, technology and what was actually filmed blend perfectly together, and that combination leads to a visceral, realistic experience.
With a movie like this, which is unique in many ways, it would have been easy to slip into cheesiness. The movie is, after all, about prawn-like aliens interacting with humans, but in a gritty, real-world setting. For the film to work, audiences have to believe that this could be possible, and Blomkamp pulls such a thing off with flying colors. The aliens have a great design and look authentic, with lots of moving, fluid parts. Their language, defined by clicks, pops and subtitles, works. And the atmosphere where they reside, a dirty slum of Johannesburg, is a surprisingly perfect place for this film to be set. Would the same story have worked if the ship had appeared over New York or some other American city? I highly doubt it.
But special effects, setting and even acting can only go so far. Any movie, even a movie like this, needs a plot, and that's where District 9 falters just a bit. Sure, the movie is an allegory to apartheid and discrimination, but that's an underlying theme, not the make-it-or-break-it story. Even the eviction of 1.8 million prawns from District 9 isn't the main story, and this is where I got caught. My expectation going into the film - even after the first 15 minutes or so - was that this movie was going to be about humans going into the district, assuming an easy eviction, and being faced with a massive and brutal resistance. The last two-thirds of the movie would be one long battle sequence.
Maybe this was an unrealistic expectation, and maybe the result would have been a bit cliché, but District 9, while good, bored me in a few parts. The movie focuses almost exclusively on one man named Wikus Van De Merwe, the head of the eviction campaign, played by first-time actor Sharlto Copley. Copley turns in a fine performance, but his character is annoying as hell. I didn't really buy into his transition from geeky office guy to struggling hero and fugitive, and this transition is what the movie is all about. It's hard to love a movie when you don't like the main character and were hoping for something more explosive earlier on. Frankly, it takes way too long to get to the really good stuff.
That being said, when the good stuff arrives, audiences are treated to one of the best third acts of any movie this year. The third act is exciting, action-packed and brutally spectacular. McG should watch for lessons on how he should have done Terminator Salvation.
Ultimately, my disappointment of District 9 comes down to false expectations. I expected one thing and got another. Should I watch this film again - and I will watch it again at some point - I more than likely will enjoy it much more, as I won't be waiting for an hour for something incredible to happen. Nevertheless, District 9 is a fast-paced, entertaining and visually thrilling film that just isn't quite as good as it could have been.
Review by Dakota Grabowski (B+)
The best advice for anyone that is thinking about watching District 9 is to go into the film blind. While it's been often said "knowing is only half the battle" (a G.I. Joe catchphrase nonetheless), the other side of the battle is, of course, not knowing. The more the audience knows about District 9 prior to watching the film, the less they'll take away from the one of the better entertaining theatre experiences of 2009. So let's stop while we are ahead and everyone can exit this review of said film to avoid any spoilers...
If you are still reading, then be forewarned, I will not save any details about the pleasantries I found from District 9. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, the film has the perfect location that excels at creating one of the most humane flicks about aliens. Sure, there may be better science-fiction films that test the waters of horror and a miraculously blend in action, but District 9 is as real as it gets and it even adds in a good amount of gore for guys who need blood sprayed on the camera in to fully appreciate a film. Upon exiting the theatre, there's a sense that the audience may be leaving with an opinion that the events of the film could become a reality. The truth of the matter is that it's already happening in South Africa, but it's not occurring with aliens per se. But that's a whole different subject for another time.
Starring a cast that is virtually unknown to the Hollywood-loving crowd, Neil Blomkamp, the director, sure did get the most out of his actors. Sharlto Copley takes the lead as Wikus van der Merwe, a middle-man Multi-National United (MNU) field operative who is promoted to take charge of evicting 1.8 million aliens (otherwise known as prawns) from District 9 to a new location outside of the city of Johannesburg. Copley is riveting as Wikus as not only was his improv humor in the first third of the film amusing, but it helped set the tone of the rest of the film. He takes Wikus, a man who generally isn't too fond of the prawns, and turns him into a character that has remorse for his actions by the end of the film and is willing to throw his-self under the bus to help the prawns escape their concentration camp-like captivity.
Naturally, Wikus is a character that will end up receiving two types of reactions from crowds. One, they'll love his evolution from an office worker to the hero by the end of the film; or two, the audience will grow wary of his transformation and find the actions he performs unbelievable. Either way, Copley as Wikus is captivating enough to hold up the acting as the rest of the characters simply serve as fodder to the progression of Wikus and the decisions he makes.
Shooting the film on a $30 million dollar budget, Neil Blomkamp has done an outstanding job at creating one of the year's best visually appealing films. With excellent work by Imagine Engine, The Embassy Visual Effects and Weta Digital, it's no wonder why District 9 is as captivating as it is - it looks and feels as though the audience could reach out and live in the world created by Blomkamp. The location of South Africa plays a big factor, but the first-third of the film is shot as if were a documentary, so Blomkamp puts the audience behind the scenes to understand how people actually feel in the film rather than trying to figure it out by their lonesome. The prawns, the alien race within the film, are fantastically created and the visual effects of the alien weapons are lifelike to the point that you'd have to wonder if, and when, human technology will achieve similar greatness. The only two issues are that several of the effects look to be reused - especially the gun that fires an electricity-like substance - and the aliens don't have enough differences to set them apart from one another.
The most disappointing facet of the film has to be that the last third of the film follows the footsteps of a typical action film. This wouldn't be as disappointing if the two-thirds that come before it weren't as strong as they were. The point in the film when it takes a turn for predictability is when Blomkamp has Wikus come to the conclusion that he has to break into MNU; Wikus and Christopher (a prawn) blow things up and get out of almost every firefight unscathed. It's a fun thrill ride, but the third act isn't as skillfully constructed as the previous two. Although, it must be said that the climax of the film has many points in the film where you might think, "oh, it's about to be conclude," but then it turns out that Blomkamp has many more tricks up his sleeve to keep the audience guessing at the fate of Wikus and Christopher.
District 9 is among the best science-fiction films to be released by a debuting director. The question now is, how will Neil Blomkamp follow-up such a successful movie? Whatever he decides, I'm sure there'll be a dedicated fan base eagerly awaiting his next step in his career.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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