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By Robert Mann.
Neill Blomkamp. Chances are that you have never heard of him. And no one would blame you. After all, thus far the career of this South African has been far from illustrious, his only notable credits being as 3D animator on TV shows such asStargate SG-1 and Smallville (his only directorial credits are a few shorts he made…more on this later). However, he in nonetheless set to be the next big thing in Hollywood. And in a big way. Why, you ask? Well, he is the protégé of none other than (one of the most successful movie directors of all time) Peter Jackson, who has shown so much faith in him that when he signed on to produce the movie adaptation of hit videogame Halo Jackson insisted that Blomkamp be given the director’s chair, much to the chagrin of studio bosses who were only interested if Jackson himself directed. The production subsequently collapsed but this didn’t stop Jackson from trying to propel Blomkamp into the limelight, and this is where District 9 comes in. After showing off his visual effects prowess in a series of short films, including Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp was given the opportunity to really put his abilities to use. Essentially a feature length remake of Alive in Joburg (and incorporating some action sequences that Blomkamp originally conceived for Halo), District 9 has come into being thanks in part to Jackson himself funding some of the somewhat modest $30 million budget (the film looks like it cost a LOT more). And just as with last year’s guerrilla style monster movie Cloverfield, this documentary style alien flick is already proving highly popular with both film critics and movie-going audiences, ensuring that Blomkamp really will be a director to look out for in the future.
In 1990, a massive star ship bearing a bedraggled alien population, nicknamed “The Prawns”, appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty years later, the initial welcome by the human population has faded. The refugee camp where the aliens were located has deteriorated into a militarized slum-like ghetto called District 9, where they are confined and exploited in squalor. In 2010, the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, is contracted to forcibly evict the population with operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copey) in charge. While carrying out this operation Wikus is exposed to a strange alien chemical which begins transforming him into one of “The Prawns” and soon he finds himself turned on by all family and friends and by MNU who want to use him to learn about how weapons confiscated from the aliens work. Managing to escape into District 9 he finds that he must now rely on those who he previously worked against and gains a whole new perspective on their plight and must make a decision about whether or not to help their plan to return to their home world, in the process discovering who the bad guys really are.
District 9 is not entirely what you might expect after seeing all the marketing for it. Sold largely as being a documentary style science fiction movie (in the same way thatCloverfield was a monster movie shot on a handheld camera), the actual film is not shot entirely this way. Of course, much of the film is still presented as though it is a documentary and in this regard it seems extremely realistic – with interviews, news footage and CCTV footage, etc. – but there is a mix of styles here with a considerable amount being presented more as a straight up sci-fi action horror. These scenes allow us to see a wider perspective of what is happening, in fact facilitating a lot of what we see, but at the same time it does somewhat destroy the illusion that we are watching a documentary. This isn’t too fatal a flaw on the whole though as it doesn’t change the fact that most of what we see is excellent. Peter Jackson’s faith in director Neill Blomkamp really pays off as he shows exactly what he is capable of, and perfectly demonstrates just why he should have been given the job of directing Halo. The visual effects are fantastic, especially the very low budget that Blomkamp had to work it and he puts it to great use in a series of thrilling and gritty action sequences late in the film, and there are also some very good practical effects, notably in the body horror sequences involving Wikus’ transformation.
These sequences are few but are quite gruesome so this film may not be for the very squeamish. As well as being a great sci-fi action horror, however, the film also serves as a not-so-subtle social commentary on the former oppressive system of Apartheid that once dominated South Africa (incidentally it makes a great change to see a film where aliens arrive in somewhere other than America or England) and in this regard the film clearly has more than a few things to say, making it thought provoking as much as it is entertaining. There is a strong storyline that carries this vein of commentary throughout in an uncompromising manner (this isn’t the only aspect of the film that makes no compromises) and the storyline is brought to life convincingly thanks to terrific performances from the entire cast. There isn’t a single big name to be found amongst the entire South African cast and this is a very good thing. The film showcases some great new acting talent, and particularly noteworthy is Sharlto Copey who, as Wikus, is incredibly convincing in a role, perfectly capturing the essence of a character who is walking the fine line between right and wrong, not really a bad guy but also not a particularly good one, just a man who cannot be clearly defined under such headings. This links into a central theme of the film, which is: who are really the bad guys – the aliens or us? This is something that will really get you thinking and think you will after the credits roll, as well as feeling quite satisfactorily entertained. Overall, District 9 perfectly illustrates that a big budget and big names aren’t necessary to make a great movie and you will leave the cinema anxiously awaiting the release of follow-up District 10.