Thursday, August 27, 2009

District 9 - Mini-review

District 9 is quite simply one of the best and most original Sci-fi movies I have seen in years, and quite possibly decades.

We should all be thanking our stars that the production of Halo, a movie adaptation of the video game, fell through. First time feature director Neill Blomkamp was disappointed when that project with producer Peter Jackson ended, but Peter Jackson urged him to do another film with him right away. Neill Blomkamp wrote the script for District 9 based on a short film he had previously done, Alive in Joburg, that he showed to Jackson.

Neill Blomkamp spent the first 18 years of his life in South Africa, and Johannesburg is the setting of District 9. When the film starts, a huge alien space ship has been hanging over the city for years. The aliens did not attack, but arrived starving and were sent to live in the slums of "District 9." Those familiar with the history of apartheid know that the coloreds of Johannesburg were sent to live in District 6. The setting of the film is so key in what makes it original. This is a film that was not filmed in Vancouver, like it seems every other film is. It's unfamiliar territory for us, and everyone speaks with that slight Afrikaans accent. The actors are all unknown, which led me to fall completely under the spell of the story. I wasn't taken out of this world thinking, oh yeah, there's Brad Pitt or Bruce Willis being a badass. In fact, the main actor of the film, Sharlto Copley, had never acted before. He was a friend of the director, a news and TV producer, who he had asked to stand in for some test footage. He did so well at improvising, that he got the role of Wikus Van De Merwe. That name is important, because in South Africa, Van De Merwe is the name used in Afrikaans jokes -- sort of like the dumb blond. A Van De Merwe is a doofus, and he certainly starts the film that way, bumbling around.

The aliens are called "prawns" and discriminated against, because they do look rather creepy. It's Wikus' job to move them to a new district further out of the city. The film is set up as if it's a documentary or TV news show about Wikus and what happened with the aliens, interspersed with interviews. It feels a little like Cloverfield, in that the footage is lots of hand held footage and some is from security cameras. It feels very visceral like you are right there as it happens. The other notable choice the director made is that the aliens are shown in broad daylight. How tired are we all of dim, dark, murky spaceship corridors where aliens jump out from around the corner. This, finally, is a different perspective.

I won't tell much more about the movie, because part of the fun of watching it is that it is an unconventional story, so you're not sure what's going to happen next! The parallels to apartheid are what gives this sci-fi film layers. It's a shoot-em-up action film, too, but it's actually about something. like all the best sci-fi stories.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. I give it four stars, and urge you to catch it in a theater to get the full effect. I hope we see some Oscar nominations for this film, too. The director has left the door open with the ending for a sequel, or maybe even a prequel. My husband thinks it is perfect just as it is and hopes there won't be a sequel, but I wouldn't mind visiting Blomkamp's world again and seeing what happened next!

What is amazing is that with merely a $30 million budget film, Blomkamp has taken the box office by storm. Again, I'm so glad that the much more expensive Halo collapsed so that he could make this film under the radar, without studio interference, and totally his own vision. It's a true original, and that is a very rare thing.

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