Genre: Sci-fi, suspense
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Running Time: 112 mins
Budget: $30 million
Released: 14 August 2009
An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent that is exposed to their biotechnology.
I first saw the trailer for District 9 when I went to watch Transformers 2, but I wasn’t sure what it was I was seeing. The use of South African actors made me think that it was an advertisement for something but when I saw the floating ship and aliens I thought that the CGI was a bit too good for a mere advert. I was completely taken aback to learn that D-9 was in fact a South African science fiction film, the very idea was alien to me (pun intended).
Well, there has been massive amounts of hype surrounding this film as well as an extensive viral marketing campaign that instigated the hype. D-9 was a breath of fresh air for the sci-fi,/alien genre as it doesn’t use the typical ‘aliens-arrive-on-earth-to-enslave-humanity-and-harvest-resources’ plot device and, instead opts for quite the opposite. Aliens are stranded on Earth and humans decide to ‘manage’ them in the form of a walled-off zone known as District 9. Most people don’t want the aliens or ‘prawns’ (a derogatory term used to classify the creatures) around and so they’re often victims of xenophobic attacks and hostility which draws comparisons to the Apartheid Regime that was present in South Africa, where from 1958 blacks were deprived of citizenship, only in this instance it’s humans shunning another sentient species. The actual district that the aliens are placed in is a hellhole-like slum and was actually filmed in a real impoverished neighbourhood located in Chiawelo, Soweto.
Another thing I thought was great about D-9 (and they pointed this out in the film itself) is that it isn’t set in the expected city, like Manhattan, Tokyo, Los Angeles and so on, which has been seen in so many science fiction films before it, in this case the aliens happen to land in Johannesburg, Soweto, a rural location that delivers an effective contrast to what the sci-fi fans are familiar with. While America refers to the cast as ‘unknowns’, that wont be the case for South African audiences. I saw many familiar faces from South African television including; Nathalie Boltt (Isidingo, Flood, Doomsday), Brandon Auret (Isidingo, Hansie, Catch a Fire) and Mahendra Raghunath, who’s an actual SABC news anchor. Sharlto Copley’s performance as the MNU human/alien liaison, Wikus van de Merwe was quite brilliant, he starts off as a clumsy and somewhat out-of-place character (given the company he works for) but soon enough he delivers a heartfelt and poignant performance.
The special effects are also of note, the overall film has a very gritty, realistic look and feel as opposed the the polished and glossy Star Wars/Star Trek-type visuals that so many sci-fi filmmakers seem to use, and this helps to further cement the realism of the film. While the aliens were originally designed by Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings trilogy), Image Engine were responsible for the implementation. Blomkamp established criteria for the design of the aliens; he wanted the species to be insectile but also bipedal. The director wanted the audience to relate to the aliens and said of the restriction on the creature design, “Unfortunately, they had to be human-esque because our psychology doesn’t allow us to really empathize with something unless it has a face and an anthropomorphic shape. Like if you see something that’s four-legged, you think it’s a dog; that’s just how we’re wired… If you make a film about an alien force, which is the oppressor or aggressor, and you don’t want to empathize with them, you can go to town. So creatively that’s what I wanted to do but story-wise, I just couldn’t.”
In conclusion, District 9 is a staggering achievement for South Africa, having released a film that is on par with (and even exceeding) some of the best science fiction films that America has to offer, and it did so using what is deemed to be a ‘low budget’ of $30 million. I think Michael Bay should tear a page from Neill Blomkamp’s book as District 9 proves that superior storytelling can trump $100 million dollar CGI orgies like Transformers 2, although in my opinion the mech-suit and weapon CGI design seen in D-9 surpassed the glossy comic-book-like designs present in Bay’s film. Watch District 9, you wont be disappointed.
District 9 is based on a short that Neill Blomkamp did called ‘Alive in Joburg’. More info can be found here; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0813999/