District 9 is not your standard Hollywood sci-fi movie, and not just because it was filmed in a Johannesburg slum. It's a mix of body horror, character drama, action, standard science fiction, City of God and Alien Nation. It's subtle, dark, humorous and not at all flashy, but very impressive.
The set up for the story is simple. Twenty years ago, an alien space craft arrives on earth, above Johannesburg, South Africa. The only aliens (derisively called prawns for their insect-like appearance) left alive on the ship are the drone or slave class, with little intelligence or initiative, but lots of behavior that humans view as anti-social, such as derailing trains and violence. Under international pressure, the government contracts with Multi National United to provide for the aliens, and confines them to District 9, a walled, aliens only slum.
Which brings us to the present day, and the film's main character, Wikus Van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a mid-level bureaucrat at MNU who, since he also happens to be married to the boss' daughter, is put in charge of evicting all of the prawns from District 9 and moving them to a newly constructed camp farther away from the city. He's stuffy, awkward, rule bound and woefully inadequate to the job. During one of the evictions, he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a strange black fluid, which slowly begins to transform him into a prawn. This is of significant interest to MNU, because they have been trying to pry into the secrets of alien weaponry for years, but the weapons can only be used by prawns, being only useless hunks of metal in human hands. But Wikus can use the weapons. Thwarting their plans to dissect him and harvest his DNA, he escapes and flees to District 9.
There he encounters Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) a more intelligent prawn who has been working to get back to the mother ship and travel back to the prawn home world. Unfortunately, to do that he needs the fluid that Wikus exposed himself to, which is now in the hands of MNU. The two form a shaky alliance: Wikus will help Christopher reclaim the fluid, if Christopher reverses his transformation. Of course, things do not go exactly as planned, and soon the pair are embroiled in a running battle with vicious paramilitary goons and witchcraft practicing Nigerian gangsters who want to cut of Wikus' mutating alien arm so they can eat it and become like the prawns.
District 9 is inventively shot, mixing faux documentary footage, security feeds, news video, interviews with experts and standard cinematic shots in no particular order, blending them all together seamlessly to move the story along. Complementary to this, the visual effects are outstanding. They are not flashy or flaunted, often obscured by haze or hanging in the background, and intended to be photo-real rather than outlandish. The alien prawns especially, which have to interact both with human actors and their physical environment, are easily accepted as existing in the actual world of the film. The mind knows that these must be effects, but one can easily forget that they are not actors, and allow one's mind to become immersed in the story. The effects advance the narrative, and do not distract from it.
Much of the film is improvised, and it's energy comes largely from the hyperkinetic Sharlto Copley as Wikus, always moving, frenetic, making odd comments and observations, playing the out of his depth technocrat to perfection. Even though there is a lot of heavy material here, violence, death and exploitation, Copley manages to inject humor in unexpected places. His twin transformations, from the unthinking oppressor of the prawns to someone aware of them as sentient beings, and from a human into a prawn himself, parallel each other. Watching Wikus as he slowly metamorphoses into an insect, but in the process becomes a better man, is intensely interesting. Copley's performance here is subtle and frenzied, particularly as he transforms further and further into his new prawn body. All of the other performances are top notch as well, unaffected and believable, but they mostly serve to highlight Copley, who is indisputably the star of the show.
District 9 succeeds in melding together several different film genres, and creating from them a compelling story that is fresh and different from what has come before. Director Neill Blomkamp talks on the commentary about growing up in Johannesburg, and his desire to instill the essence of the city on the film, which by itself would probably be a new perspective for most American audiences. The addition of indigent aliens to this environment, and all the trappings of ineffective government management of them, the combination of the fantastic and the mundane, provides an absolutely unique backdrop to the story as it unfolds. The irrepressible Sharlto Copley as Wikus adds the necessary element of energy, and the inventive script rounds out the experience. This is a must see for fans of science fiction with an eye out for something new, as long as they don't mind some moderately disgusting gross out effects.
The video is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and generally looks good. Much of the film is shot as news footage, security cameras, etc., and much else is handheld. In this environment, there are a lot of what would seem to be quality issues that are inherent in the pseudo-documentary aspects, and thus are intended. In the purely cinematic shots, the image is bright and clear and no defects are visible.
The sound is Dolby digital 5.1 channel, and is also good. There is good sound separation around the space, particularly in the action scenes toward the end of the film. Dialogue is always distinct and clear. The audio track is available in English and French, along with an audio descriptive track for the blind. Subtitles are available in English and French, as well as English for the deaf and hard of hearing. The director's commentary is also subtitled, in English only.
There are a significant amount of extras included in the two disc set, on both discs. Short descriptions are below:
There are quite a number of deleted scenes included, totaling about 23 minutes. Most are quite short, showing additional or extended interviews, prawn evictions in District 9 (some of which do not have complete special effects) and even a short MNU educational film. Most of the scenes are inconsequential, or veer off from the main story. It's easy to see why they were excluded. Still, they are quite interesting.
The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log
Clocking in at 34:19, this featurette follows the creation of District 9, broken into three parts: conception, shooting and refining. It includes lots of interviews with director Neill Blomkamp, producer Peter Jackson, special effects and sound people, and many others, along with quite a bit of behind the scenes footage. Lots of interesting anecdotes.
The commentary with director Neill Blomkamp is also quite engaging. He discusses his thoughts about what he conceived of as the back story to the prawns landing on earth, the events and ideas that helped to form the story in his mind, and the perils of shooting in an actual South African slum. He speaks at length about his love for his boyhood home of Johannesburg, and how he wanted to get across the true essence of the city to viewers. There is also a lot of discussion of how many of the technical effects were achieved. There's plenty in the commentary to interest film buffs.
Previews are included for Moon, 2012, Legion, Michael Jackson's This is It and Universal Soldier: Regeneration.
Disc two includes four featurettes, as well as previews for Dear John, Dark Country and Takers. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese traditional and Korean.
Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus
This featurette runs just under ten minutes and details the prosthetics and makeup that were used to show Wikus' slow transformation into a prawn. Interviews are included with Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley and the makeup artists who worked on him.
Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9
Clocking in at 12:05, this featurette focuses on the unique improvisational method used to film District 9. Blomkamp wanted things to feel as natural as possible, and so allowed the actors a lot of freedom, while sticking to a very structured narrative arc. Lots of interviews with the actors, co-writer Terri Tatchell and others.
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9
This featurette is just over thirteen minutes, and details the extensive design work that went into District 9. Blomkamp consciously modeled it after science fiction films of the seventies and eighties. Lots of interviews with designers and artists. Quite interesting.
Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9
This featurette is just over ten minutes, and details the special effects challenges of making District 9. The fact that much of the film was shot hand held, and was largely improvised, presented a lot of obstacles for the animators inserting the digital aliens.
A lot of time and effort were put into the extra features for District 9. There is a wealth of behind the scenes information and compelling interviews. It's nice to see this amount and quality of extra material.
District 9 is a unique film experience. It takes existing and familiar film genres and tropes, blends them together and creates a new and exciting story. It takes the totally alien prawns, and places them firmly in a grounded, gritty slum, administered by feckless human bureaucrats we can all relate to. The story flows smoothly along, and as it goes the viewer becomes more sympathetic to the prawns, even as they are disgusted by Wikus' changing physiology. The subtle and ironic story, with its dark humor and brutal violence in just the right balance, is moving without being sappy, and doesn't let us rest for long as it runs its course. District 9 is the perfect mix of popcorn film and thoughtful drama. Highly recommended.