South African director Neill Blomkamp was hanging around in the WETA studios waiting for production to begin on Halo but, when that fell through, Fran Walsh had the idea of keeping the energy going and making another film instead - a feature version of Blomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg. With a very modest budget they relocated to an area outside Soweto to make District 9.
The film is set in Johannesburg in the near future where a spaceship has hovered above the city for the previous two decades. The ship arrived and did nothing, no attacks, abductions or attempts to communicate so humans flew up there and broke in finding it contained sick and starving aliens. The few survivors were taken to a camp on the outskirts of the city where they thrived and multiplied so, now numbering 1.8 million, the 'Prawns' as they are referred to, live in a sprawling shanty town called District 9. Bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe from the Multi-National United (MNU) is given the job of serving the residents with eviction notices so they can be relocated to the purpose-built District 10.
The job is going relatively smoothly until one Prawn throws Wikus into a building, breaking his arm and, in another routine inspection, Wikus finds a silver container that squirts black liquid into his face which infects him with alien DNA. The MNU are desperate to capture him so they can use him for weapons research, even if it means killing him. On the run, Wikus hides in District 9 and is befriended by a resident Prawn and his young son. Complicating matters are the Nigerian gangsters who operate there, trading alien weaponry for cat food, which the Prawns adore! The gang leader wants to eat Wikus to become like him and thus can use the alien weapons, which only respond to their DNA.
The film is shot documentary style with a mixture of retrospective interviews talking about the events, hand-held footage of Wikus and the official footage shot during the eviction and this is all edited together to form a chronological narrative of events. As the talking heads are speaking about Wikus and the events in past tense, you know something bad has happened to him, but aren't exactly sure what and where he is now.
There is a great deal of political subtext to District 9, from the apartheid era to the more recent clashes between township residents and Zimbabwean refugees, with all the xenophobia and racism that accompanies such tensions. As a mid-level bureaucrat, Wikus embodies the casual racism that has become endemic, thinking nothing of aborting eggs and referring to the aliens in derogatory terms. His journey and transformation makes the film.
The acting is uniformly excellent, particularly from Sharlto Copley, who was allowed to ad-lib, and this improvisation makes Wikus an extremely interesting and funny character - it's amazing how much humour there is here. District 9 is written with intelligence and energy by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell and Blomkamp, belying his lack of experience, directs with flair and competence, making him a name to look out for.
The commentary by Neill Blomkamp is a very creditable solo effort as he talks non-stop throughout the running time, providing background information, explaining the subtexts and his hopes for the movie which, at the time of recording, was about to be theatrically released.
There is a selection of deleted scenes which can be played individually or sequentially and are worth a watch, especially toward the end as they show the actors interacting with Jason Cope in his grey mo-cap suit.
The many featurettes cover pretty much every aspect of production and well presented, making them an enjoyable and informative watch. They vary in length from about 10-30 minutes and, when put together, are a comprehensive look at the whole filming process. I was amazed at the amount of CGI that was in the film and the way the actors interacted with nothing was quite extraordinary!
The interactive feature Joburg from Above allows you to navigate around District 9, the alien mothership and MNU headquarters, zooming in to different areas and reading about them, and is an interesting addition to the disc.
As well as the trailer, there is the option of watching the film with movieIQ which uses BD-Live technology to give you information as the film plays. Unfortunately, every time I tried this the movieIQ server was down, so I can't really comment!
It's worth noting that all of the extra features are presented in 1080i HD.
The film looks absolutely fantastic with a beautifully sharp picture and a seamless blend of live action and CGI. It doesn't dwell on the visual effects as Blomkamp has created a world where the Prawns and omnipresent mothership feel completely natural and they are extremely well rendered. The design and movement of the creatures is very well done, probably helped by Blomkamp's background in special effects.
The hand-help shooting style is never an issue and doesn't make you feel nauseous as it can do - as with the CGI, it's integral to the film. Adding to the realism are the news style captions and timestamps on the footage.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is superb, presenting the dialogue extremely well and making good use of the surrounds for the ambient effects, though they are most noticeable in the gun battle near the end.
The sound design is fantastic and the job of creating the 'alien speak' has been done extremely well as they look like insects and speak accordingly, making the whole concept of aliens co-existing with humans (albeit in a tense and slightly hostile way) easier to accept.
District 9 arrived in cinemas following a great deal of Internet chatter and an innovative poster campaign. With Peter Jackson's name attached, I went into it with high expectations and wasn't disappointed on any level. I was similarly looking forward to the BD and, again, my expectations were exceeded. This is one of the best films of 2009 and the disc similarly is one of the best releases and rightly comes with the highest recommendation.