Review for District 9
Next in my ‘discovery’ of films that I really should have seen ten years previously is District 9, the South African sci-fi that took the world by storm in 2009, and served as Neill Blomkamp’s impressive feature debut. Once again, I wonder if I’ve left it far too late to appreciate (an experience I had not too long ago with Dr. Strangelove), and also, I might be coming at it ass-backwards, having seen the same director’s follow up feature Elysium before this. At least this time I have a fair reason for my initial reluctance to watch District 9. When I first learned of the film, I had such a strong sense of déjà vu that I felt I had already seen it. It was actually Alien Nation that I had seen, both in film and TV series form, and expectations of an obvious rehash kept me from giving District 9 a try. Until now that is.
Twenty years previously, a giant flying saucer appeared, over Johannesburg of all placed. Full of insectile aliens, quickly dubbed ‘prawns’ the refugees made their home in what became to be known as District 9, although humanity’s first contact with aliens became depressingly predictable when a bunch of foreigners move into a neighbourhood en masse. Xenophobia and intolerance became rife, with clashes between humans and aliens inevitable.
Now, the pressure and tension is so prevalent that the decision has been made to evict the aliens from District 9 and move them 400 miles away, far away from the people in the city. Wikus Van De Merwe works for NSU, the company in charge of security in District 9 and overseeing the mass eviction. It might be nepotism that gets him a promotion to take charge of the eviction; he’s married to the boss’s daughter, but it still means going into the District 9 slum under heavily armed guard to get signatures on the eviction notices. And District 9 isn’t the safest of places, a mish-mash of prawn and human refugees, rife with criminality and the menace of the Nigerian gangs, and where MSU security has a reputation of acting with a heavy hand. There’s contraband as well, alien weapons and technology that humans can’t use. And then Wikus finds a strange bit of alien tech in a shack, which sprays a strange fluid into his face...
District 9 gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and French, with English, French and Hindi subtitles. There is also a DD 5.1 Surround English Audio Descriptive track. The film looks and sounds fantastic, the image is crystal clear, with excellent detail and rich colours, while the documentary style approach to the narrative makes the special effects and digital enhancements seamlessly blend in. The dialogue is clear throughout, and thick accents as well as alien clicks get subtitles. It’s a nice immersive audio experience, making the most of the action, although the music is a little action movie generic.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case with some nice inner sleeve art. This is probably the most annoyingly authored disc I’ve had the misfortune of playing, up there with the Terminator 2 Skynet Edition.
Sure, it quickly autoplays a trailer for Michael Jackson’s This Is It before quickly flashing up the choice of English and Alien menu screens. Make your choice, and then sit there for five minutes staring at a black screen, listening to your BD player whine before it loads up the menu, or you can go and make a cup of tea, or panic, and think something’s wrong after three minutes, eject the disc, and then go through the whole palaver again.
It’s a Java laden disc obviously, and expect more freezes and waits with the BD Live, the Cinechat, and the CineIQ features, as well as the interactive content.
That would be the Joburg From Above: Satellite and schematics of the World of District 9 Interactive Map, which does exactly what it says, plus those long load times to and from the main menu.
Fortunately there’s less of a wait for the Commentary from director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp.
There are 22 Deleted Scenes on the disc lasting 23:28.
The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log is a three part making of running to 34:19.
Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus (9:52)
Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9 (12:05)
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 (13:18)
Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9 (10:18)
These are four behind the scenes featurettes for the film.
Finally you can watch the Michael Jackson trailer again.
I was right about the Alien Nation link, although in terms of referencing the past, District 9 is more a cross between Alien Nation and The Fly. I also made a mistake in watching this after Elysium, as Elysium recycles more than a few concepts and plot ideas from District 9 as well. District 9 is by far the better film, and it’s far more than the sum of its genetic similarities to Alien Nation or The Fly.
It’s a masterstroke to set the film in South Africa, as the references to the apartheid era cannot be missed. Also, as the commentary explains, there is even more of a connection to a more contemporary disdain towards immigration, a feeling that extends globally, and is not just restricted to one corner of the world. For the alien ‘prawns’ are placeholders for any immigrant community. The way they are unceremoniously corralled into a slum area is depressingly familiar, and given that they are alien, it’s easy to take the dehumanisation of their society to extremes. The MCU security treats them like animals, to the degree of restricting their reproduction by ‘enforced’ abortions. It’s pretty horrific stuff, reinforced by the differences in culture.
There is the sci-fi element to it, with an alien ship full of technology that appears to be genetically encoded so that only the aliens can use it. Of course with the prospect of powerful alien technology, MCU’s ultimate goal is to ‘acquire’ the genetic markers that will enable humans to use that technology.
Wikus van de Merwe is thrown into this nightmare when he’s assigned the responsibility of enacting the forced evictions. He’s a typical bureaucrat to begin with and he shares the prevailing opinion of the ‘prawns’ and the sense of superiority that goes with it. He’s officious and keen to score brownie points with his employers (and his father in law), and at first he’s happy to turn a blind eye to the extremes that the security contingent goes to. But as the story unfolds, his perspective begins to change, especially following an unexpected accident with some alien technology. And that quickly brings him into opposition to his employers given how much they covet that alien technology.
What makes District 9 special is the documentary approach to it. It starts off as a documentary, with talking heads interviews, coupled with a fly on the wall team following Wikus as he goes about his job. We’re voyeurs to begin with, seeing how these overseers treat the aliens that they oversee, and how the rest of the human population treat the alien interlopers. If there is a niggle, it’s that the line between documentary and narrative is pretty faint, and you hardly notice when the perspective shifts to a place where a camera crew simply cannot be. Sometimes it feels like you’re shifting back to the documentary, especially when the talking heads interviews continue. There is a difference between the documentary style, and the narrative style, but visually it’s all one consistent style, which can be confusing if you think about it.
Thankfully the film is so good that it just doesn’t matter. You can just go with the flow and enjoy the story. Wikus goes on a transformative journey in the film, from bureaucrat to hero, and more, while the social relevance of the story makes District 9 a thinking man’s action sci-fi. I really shouldn’t have left it this long to watch, even if it feels that it takes just as long to load the main menu on the disc. It makes you want the film to get a new release, although these Sony discs tend to be released worldwide. Maybe if a boutique label picks it up...