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District 9
Director: Neill Blokamp
Screenplay: Neill Blokamp & Terri Tatchell
Stars: Sharlto Copley (Wikus Van De Merwe), David James (Koobus), Jason Cope (Christopher Johnson), Vanessa Haywood (Tania Van De Merwe), Louis Minnaar (Piet Smit)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2009
Country: New Zealand
District 9
District 9 Neill Blokamp’s feature debut District 9 is a sharp-edged science fiction parable that mixes metaphor and violent action with such dizzying confidence that you leave the theater feeling charged and alive. It’s proof positive that a film can dazzle your senses while also wringing your emotions and teasing your brain and your morality. Especially in a summer dominated by the bloated and ear-splitting meaninglessness of Michael Bay’s Transformers sequel, District 9, which was made on a relatively miniscule $30 million budget but looks like it cost three times that, is a welcome return to the kind of intelligent science fiction that, for whatever reason, has been largely absent from the big screen (although it is still alive and well on television).

The film takes place in an alternate present tense that has been indelibly shaped by the arrival 20 years earlier of a massive spaceship that descended from the sky and then stalled out just above Johannesburg, South Africa. In a dense opening montage of faux documentary footage, newscasts, and talking head interviews, Blokamp and coscreenwriter Terri Tatchell lay out the backstory of how the South African government waited three months for some sign of life inside the ship before eventually cutting into it and finding close to a million starving and confused six-foot alien workers. With nothing else to do with them, the government transferred the aliens (who are derisively referred to as “prawns” because they look like a gangly cross between a squid and a cockroach) to a settlement camp just outside the city called “District 9,” where they have resided--and multiplied--ever since (their ship, an impressive sight that becomes oddly mundane with familiarity as the film progresses, remains stranded in the sky).

When the story opens, there has been a wave of unrest in the camp--really a ramshackle, sun-scorched slum overrun with crime lords who exploit the prawns’ relatively meek nature and craving for cat food--which has caused the government to rethink its alien policy and move them further away from the human population to an even more remote tent camp called “District 10.” The government hires a massive private military contractor called Multinational United (MNU) to do the heavy lifting involved in relocating 1.8 million aliens. The man put in charge of the operation is one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a well-meaning mustachioed dweeb whose wife (Vanessa Haywood) happens to be the daughter of MNU’s cutthroat CEO. Wikus is determined to prove that he is capable of the job, and the first 30 minutes of the film is presented documentary-style as he and an army of MNU soldiers-for-hire arrive in District 9 and begin rounding up the prawns for their relocation.

Things don’t exactly go according to plan, however, as Wikus is accidentally exposed to some secret alien matter, causing mutations that make his body suddenly very valuable to MNU, which has little compunction about cutting up aliens for military research and even less compunction about cutting up Wikus. The underlying goal is to make use of the prawns’ advanced weaponry, which is biologically engineered and can therefore only be used by someone with alien DNA. Wikus, recognizing that he is about to become a lab experiment, escapes from MNU’s clutches and spends the rest of the film on the run from Koobus (David James), MNU’s fascistic military leader. He finds refuge with a prawn called Christopher Johnson, who is in the midst of trying to execute a long-staged plan to return to the mothership and get it working again. Thus, Wikus finds himself in a desperate and uneasy alliance with one of the aliens that just hours earlier he was in charge of subjugating and moving.

The metaphorical implications of District 9 are quite obvious, with the prawns standing in for any oppressed minority and their forced settlement camp representing the kinds of devalued space into which such minorities are forced (directly or indirectly) to live. It has a kind of Twilight Zone-ish allegorical neatness that gives underlying weight to the subsequent firefights and chase sequences that constitute the film’s furiously charged surface. Blokamp knows that metaphorical implications are all well and good, but they need to be woven into an emotional narrative that keeps us drawn in, which is where Sharlto Copley comes in. As Wikus, Copley (who is not a professional actor and had never starred in a film before) gives an amazingly naturalistic central performance, morphing from office lackey with something to prove to a ragged man of increasing desperation who ultimately finds an inner strength of which we would not have thought him capable in the film’s opening moments when he was cheerfully bumbling around while trying to attach a microphone to his sweater vest.

With its invigorating mixture of conventional filmmaking with the appearance of “found footage” from CCTV cameras and television interviews, District 9 is consistently inventive and thoughtful in spinning its outrageous sci-fi riff on recognizable power dynamics. It has a fierce intelligence and a willingness to challenge expectations, which was possible only because the film was made far from the prying eyes of the kinds of studio executives who are generally fearful of entrusting a major project to an unknown like Blokamp. In fact, that is exactly how the film came to be: producer Peter Jackson hand-picked Blokamp, then a high-end commercial director, to helm a mega-budget screen version of the hit video game Halo. However, the project eventually fell apart, partially because the studio was uneasy handing the reigns of such an expensive film to an unknown quantity. So, Jackson charged Blokamp with coming up with a new project, which he did by spinning a short film he had made about an alien ghetto into District 9, which is double satisfying in that we get an clever, exciting, and provocative feature debut and one less movie based on a video game.

District 9 Blu-Ray
This two-disc set includes a digital copy of the film on a separate disc.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Hindi
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Neill Blokamp
  • Deleted scenes
  • “The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log” three-part documentary
  • “Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus” featurette
  • “Innovation: Acting and Improvisation” featurette
  • “Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9” featurette
  • “Alien Generation: Visual Effects” featurette
  • “Joburg From Above: Interactive Map of Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9
  • movieIQ (BD-Live)
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    SRP$39.99
    Release DateDecember 22, 2009

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Not surprisingly, District 9 looks absolutely first-rate in its 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation. The film was shot on the high-end Red One HD camera, so the image on this Blu-Ray is a direct digital video-to-digital video port. The film has a unique visual approach that combines the look of traditional action and science fiction films with various forms of documentary aesthetics and “found footage,” so the quality of the image varies accordingly. At all times, though, the transfer presents the image appropriately, whether it be the extremely sharp, detailed look of high definition or the grainy look of low-res video. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is likewise excellent, with impressive directionality and use of the surrounds to immerse you in the action sequences and substantial work on the low end to give the explosions and rumbling vehicles plenty of weight.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    District 9 has an impressive array of supplements that add immensely to the appreciation of this unique film and its production. Writer/director Neill Blokamp’s screen-specific audio commentary is thoughtful and engaging, and my only regret is that they couldn’t wrangle executive producer Peter Jackson (who was surely busy finishing up The Lovely Bones) to contribute, as well. In addition to the commentary, we have 22 deleted scenes, most of which run a minute in length or less, and are therefore more like snippets that were clipped out of already existing scenes. “The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log” is an in-depth three-part documentary that runs about 35 minutes in length. Featuring interviews with most of the cast and crew, including Blokamp; cowriter Terri Tatchell; stars Sharlto Copley, David James, and Vanessa Haywood; and executive producer Peter Jackson, it focuses first on the film’s origins and the process of writing it, then on the actual production on location in South Africa, and finally on postproduction and editing. “Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus” is a fascinating look behind the practical make-up special effects (no CGI) that slowly transformed Wikus into one of the aliens; if you didn’t already appreciate Copley’s performance and all he went through, you will after watching this. “Innovation: Acting and Improvisation” (12 min.) focuses on the acting in the film and how the actors were encouraged to improvise their roles, while “Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9” (14 min.) looks at set and production design, as well as the creation of the various alien weapons and artifacts, and “Alien Generation: Visual Effects” (10 min.) looks at the digital effects used to create the “prawns.” I didn’t have time to go through every nook and cranny of “Joburg From Above: Interactive Map of Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9,” but suffice it to say that this is a rich, interactive archive of detailed information about the film’s fictionalized locations (MNU Headquarters, District 9, and the alien ship), as well as the characters and the aliens. And, as with several other recent Sony Blu-Ray releases, this one features movieIQ, which uses your player’s BD-Live connection to offer real-time information and trivia about the film while you’re watching it.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


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