Watching District 9 was a new film experience, which could only be described as Hotel Rwanda, Fido and Lars and the Real Girl... in a blender. In retrospect, it's all of that and more. Neill Blomkamp burst onto the movie scene in 2005 with Alive in Joburg, a fascinating Sci-Fi/Documentary short film about aliens in Johannesburg... what, you didn't hear about it? Don't worry, it wasn't a hostile threat - didn't even make the news.
The 6-minute short film caught the eye of Peter Jackson, who instantly recognised the young director's talents, signing him on for the video game to screen adaptation of Halo. However, it was the adaptation of Alive in Joburg that would cement the director into the international circuit, with the real Lord of the Rings as producer in District 9.
District 9 is an immersive journey into Joburg, the notorious crime capital of South Africa (and possibly the world), two decades after the arrival of an ominous alien mother ship, which has hovered to a stand still over the city. The alien refugees have been evacuated and slums have been set up on the city's outskirts after much fear and contempt from the locals (blame Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
Wikus Van De Merwe, an MNU employee, has been commissioned with the task of gathering "signed" eviction consent forms as part of a humanitarian relocation for the so-called "prawns" (derogatory reference - use sparingly). However, things don't go as planned as Wikus becomes a valuable asset to the alien race's return to the mother ship, the Nigerian crime lord's underground syndicate and the evil political machinations of the MNU corporation... dum, dum, dum.
District 9 is a man-on-the-run film that is reminiscent of Hitchcock classics and Sci-Fi like Minority Report. The gritty realism of the environment is delivered with an unscripted feel through a series of talking heads, eye witnesses and news reports. These varying opinions are carried out like a documentary as we are introduced to the kingpin of the story, Wikus Van De Merwe, played by one of Blomkamp's old school friends, Sharlto Copley.
District 9 bridges several genres with its thingy anchored in science fiction. South Africa is virgin territory for aliens... America is usually the setting for most alien invasions (Independence Day) and adoptions (remember Alf and the Fresh Prince) and this is one of the first big budget alien films to spread its tentacles in South Africa... what a debut! The CGI is incredible in the same realm as Lord of the Rings. The alien creatures seem a little disjointed at first (think Parktown prawns), but soon become a very solid part of the action with a real presence and a dialect reminiscent of Captain Fowler's rendition in The Thin Blue Line.
Blomkamp does an exceptional job... setting the platform for a gritty action/thriller, creating a tense atmosphere, a believable world and delving into the concept of alienation in South Africa as a political parable (just swap the 9 around). The film works well as a straight-laced Sci-Fi entry, but has the symbolic depth to offer a layered back story to the multi-racial nation and its dark history.
It's not a direct translation of Apartheid, but its point of view also tackles the segregation of refugees and the hostility associated with xenophobia in recent years. The term 'alien' transforms in the context of South Africa, allowing Blomkamp to wield the double-edged sword of District 9 with more power in its poignant political message and entertaining visual extravaganza.
Copley's performance is solid and he carries the story as the strong-willed, yet likable anti-hero on the wrong side of reconciliation. The arc is similar to Minority Report, where a Big Brother type government corporation carries out "humanitarian" operations, while a running man weaves his way to clearing his name and taking revenge against the machine that created him.
In this case, it's the alien visitors that have been placed under "protection" in district 9, a practice comparable with Apartheid, World War II and the genocidal atrocities in Africa. Except instead of John Anderton, it's the unlikely hero of the day... Wikus Van De Merwe in a story to rival Philip K. Dick for timeless originality.
The film has the behind-the-scenes gravity of Hotel Rwanda without having to contend with the painful realism and brutality of a cleaving panga. This symbolism has a far-reaching effect on other films, where otherness and alien beings are not accepted by society. District 9 also makes an interesting contrast when compared with Fido, an indie "Zombies in Pleasantville" film that has a similar take with more focus on comedy. The necessary segregation, figurehead of zombies (instead of aliens) and governmental control are all shared themes in District 9, except the budget and setting don't have the same magnitude. Then Lars and the Real Girl comes to mind... no, not the blow-up doll, but Copley's likability, appearance and demeanor, which are in-line with Gosling's take on Lars and the alienating spread of genres. It all just seems to work... beautifully.
District 9 is a fascinating film that seems to have it all. It's difficult to find fault with this movie that sweeps audiences in, both emotionally and intellectually. The technical brilliance and intensity of Blomkamp's directorial vision, the devastatingly good CGI that blends real with fantastic and the script's dull razor political agenda rival anything from Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. District 9 is an excellent all-rounder, which has drawn South Africa closer to Hollywood, with Neill Blomkamp's off the map creation.
The bottom line: Excellent.