District 9 (2009)

Director:  Neill Blomkamp
Cast:  Sharlto CopleyJason CopeNathalie Boltt
Plot:  An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly find a kindred spirit in a government agent that is exposed to their biotechnology.

Genre:  Action / Drama / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects.
Runtime:  112min
Rating:  M18 for bloody violence and pervasive language.

There is much to anticipate in District 9.  Produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, 2001-2003; King Kong, 2005) with a shoestring budget of only US$30 million, it is billed as a landmark in science-fiction filmmaking and one of the year’s most original pictures.  Under an unusual marketing campaign that relied on internet buzz and ‘No Humans Allowed’ posters, District 9 arrives in Singapore like a quiet stealth ship, without any fanfare, and certainly without much hype.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, a South African whose immense talent in special effects has led to sci-fi fans labeling him as the next James Cameron (The Terminator, 1984; Aliens, 1986), District 9 is adapted from his critically-acclaimed short, Alive In Joburg (2005).  He expands the film narrative to integrate more elements of action and suspense, but not necessarily tying up loose ends or explaining certain issues of logic.  Because the film’s visuals arrest us more than we expect, we tend to ignore such issues and just enjoy the spectacle.  And we should.

District 9 is set in an alternate reality in Johannesburg where aliens called ‘prawns’ live in slum-like conditions apart from humans.  The prawns are forced to relocate into another concentration camp-like area far from the city following protests by humans concerned with their increasing acts of violence and crime.

The film stars unknown actors with Sharlto Copley leading the cast as Wikus Van De Merwe.  Wikus is changed both physically and emotionally when during a mission to get the prawns to sign their eviction letters, he accidentally consumes black liquid in a canister.  The story unfolds with an air of unpredictability as Wikus realizes that to survive, he has to seek refuge from the very people he is trying to evict.

Blomkamp directs District 9 in a style of a documentary.  The film begins with a series of interviews which sheds light on the crisis.  And then follows up with live feed from news broadcast and black-and-white images from security cameras which bring a sense of urgency. Most of the film is shot with fair amounts of shaky camerawork, but they are not as nauseating as anything in Cloverfield (2008).

The color is often desaturated which adds to the film’s grittiness and unpolished feel.  To Blomkamp’s credit, the film is largely expertly-directed and contains several excellent action set-pieces towards the end.  And unlike in Michael Bay pictures, viewers know exactly what is happening on screen.

Blood-thirsty fans will welcome District 9 with a warm embrace.  Here, there are scenes of strong violence and gore as humans are shot to pieces and prawns used as experimental subjects.  The physical transformation of Wikus is quite frightening, though it is nothing compared to what is shown in The Fly (1986).

Apart from David Cronenberg’s film, District 9 is also influenced by Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) and Cameron’s Aliens.  The prawns have identifiable and similar human-like features like limbs and a face; though they are strange and at times intimidating, these aliens are a far cry from the brutal, grotesque creatures in Cameron’s film.

Much is said about the film’s social and political commentary.  Echoes of apartheid reverberate in District 9 in which prawns are treated as minority and thus, outcasts, in a system which completely favors humans.  Blomkamp does not take sides initially, but later on he tends towards empathizing with the prejudiced.

The film ends with a thought-provoking (and haunting) image, and the development of the story leaves room for a possible sequel.  From a bag of sci-fi clich├ęs, Blomkamp manages to come out with a stunningly original concept.  In a decade of sequels and remakes, this is about as unlikely as Terrence Malick reimagining…Spiderman.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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