It's been a fantastic year for the science-fiction genre of moviemaking, both on a grand scale (James Cameron's Avatar) and on a stripped-down, independent level (Duncan Jones' Moon). We've seen the clout that billows within social critiques and mental endurance tests in these pictures, some of which hark back to the pre-Star Wars days when depth and brains were emphasized more than dazzling special effects. Obviously, I'm referring more to Moon than to Avatar with that statement. However, there's one picture that stands out from the pack as the crowning achievement from this year, one that blends credibly impressive special effects, pensive notions, and a smattering of boisterous action sequences: Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a budget-minded picture powered by Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films.
It begins with archive footage from 1982, catching us up to speed on everything that's happened in South Africa after a spaceship comes to a stand-still above the city of Johannesburg. The aliens began hovering -- not invading, simply hovering -- because their ship malfunctioned, demanding an investigation that led to a humanitarian effort for the aliens. After a while, however, this resulted in mass panic and segregation that led to the creation of District 9, a mainland refugee camp that transformed into an anarchistic slum. Violence ensued, fear erupted in the mainland citizens, and a sense of vicious scavenger mentality sparked in the alien "prawns". With safety issues simmering out of control due to their activity, it's been decided roughly 25 years later that Multinational United (MNU), with the assistance of a privately-funded police organization and Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) spearheading, would relocate the 1.8 million visitors to District 10, a smaller, much further out-of-the-way camp.
To say that District 9 finds firm footing as a political critique, especially one that fixates firmly on South African apartheid, is an understatement. It can be felt with the first taped footage of the malnourished and mistreated prawns, resonating further as the comparison between them and the exploitation of humankind strengthens. With that idea firmly in his sight, director Blomkamp makes use of a relatively small budget -- $30million -- to create a documentary-style picture that brings dabs of science-fiction influence together into something polished and original, all within a gritty atmosphere. It's a powerful film where the content could stand on its own as a compelling sci-fi piece, even with the political metaphors stripped away.
At first, it appears as if District 9 will be something of a ground-level critique on humanitarian issues, with a bit of science-fiction flare powering it along. The camera follows Wikus and his militant entourage as he gets eviction signature after signature from the residents, some with violent resistance and others, like Christopher Johnson and his child, that battle him on an intellectual level. Johnson happens to be a ring leader of sorts for the prawns, obvious by his intellect, as he tries to organize a way to cultivate fuel for his ship so that he and his kind might return home. The rest are more foot soldier types with lower mentalities, and the process in following Wikus in a guerilla-style fashion as he forces eviction softens our image of them -- crafting these creatures into organisms that really aren't given much choice behind their existence on this earth.
That's where Image Engine's computer-generated effects earn their weight in District 9, as the prawns are actually able to grasp our emotions and, very easily, pull our affection towards them as living entities. Each one looks similar to a hybrid between a grasshopper and a shrimp, with small limbs and antennae moving about at several points on the body, and Blomkamp's not shy about letting the camera focus on their designs. Their tangibility is remarkable, heightened in conjunction with WETA Workshop's physical effects. Simple elements like a prawn barfing up black fluid and ripping a human limb from the socket never lead us astray from the film's aims, which pairs with long-lens vista shots that incorporate visualizations of the mother ship that make Independence Day's aerial effects pale in comparison.
District 9 shifts gears at this point from its graphic yet sober introduction -- a combo between character introduction to Wikus and a bang-up summary of the elements we need to know about, including Voodoo-like spirituality, the underground market, and the military profiteering surrounding their weaponry -- to an almost horror-like breakdown once Wikus undergoes a biological alteration. His transformation looks back to David Cronenberg's The Fly for grotesque influence (along with a little bit of the video game Dark Sector), yet the metamorphosis grasps at emotional gravity because Wikus is transforming into the very thing that he's been harshly trying to push away from Johannesburg. Witnessing his fear in losing everything he's obtained, including his beautiful and understanding wife, becomes both an anxious experience and a well-deserved deconstruction because of his harshness to the prawns.
All of this only works because of Sharlto Copley's performance as Wikus. He doesn't quite start off as successful, though: at the beginning of District 9, his character teeters over into a slightly caricaturist territory with his quirkiness. It's likely another potshot from Blomkamp at blunt-headed government types, yet his oddity comes across as slightly fake at the beginning. However, just as soon as Wikus suffers from his accident and begins the Jeff Goldblum-like crumble, Copley grabs the reins and pushes furiously ahead with wild eyes and desperate angst -- especially once the character can't trust anyone around him any longer. He grapples the character, an untrustworthy and intriguingly multilayered rascal, with admirable energy. It's obvious why Blomkamp stuck with his high-school friend Copley for this role, because he really pulls off the level of tooth-pulling, skin-ripping mania that we'd expect from this transformative being.
District 9 boils to a violent rage in its third act, bringing everything together from its brilliant start into a blitzkrieg of science-fiction action that'd make the likes of Aliens and Robocop proud. Clear influence can be seen from those pictures, especially in a mech-like device used in it, but it also amply handles gunfire and explosives to astounding degrees. At first, it doesn't seem like Blomkamp quite has this level of volatility behind his filmmaker's eye, but as he sends bullets blazing in firefights in the final hours of Wikus' scramble through the slum -- as well as a few lightning bolts and electrical charges from alien weaponry -- he proves us wrong. And, for good measure, he incorporates a flicker of humor involving swine revenge, some cattle-prodding at official-level hypocrisy, and the lion's share of thoughtfulness about humanity's complexity.
And, in so many words, District 9 is a work of high-brow, low-budget genius because of its multifaceted successes, enthralling and engaging in just about every way imaginable. The most impressive thing about it all is that it stems from a 6-minute short, Blomkamp's "Alive in Joburg", and comes stitched together as the product of a freshman feature-length director. There's a level of polish about its construction that's hard to believe; sure, it comes with influence from one of the reigning bigwigs of high-dollar productions, Peter Jackson, but the punch behind its allegorical narrative and well-pitched performances achieve a higher caliber of proficiency than expected. That can be seen all the way until its rather clever conclusion, one that can both allude to a second part of the story or end with a sense of anxiety and weighted emotion in our chests. For our sakes, I hope we're able to see more of Blomkamp's sharp eye for politico sci-fi splendor, because his tale of District 9 is luminous.
District 9 arrives from Sony in a standard two-disc Blu-ray package, with the film and supplements on Disc One (1) and the Digital Copy on Disc Two (2). A shiny, raised slipcover has been included that replicates the cover artwork on both sides, while the interior copies one of the posters featuring a "No Aliens Allowed" sign. At the start of the disc, following several trailers (Moon, 2012, Boondock Saints 2, and others), the screen pops up with two options -- a human figure, and an alien figure. These options only change the design template around each, reflecting the decision made at this screen.
Video and Audio:
Here's where the debate between artistic merit and high-definition perfection comes into play. District 9 comes equipped from Sony in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC encode, and it looks stellar. In fact, it looks better than memory serves of the theatrical prints, with finely-etched details and grimy, decadent textures scattered from top to bottom. Every ounce of the South African slum presents a pristine level of clarity, shot with a ridiculously snazzy Red One HD camera and taken from the raw data. The results, as with anything snatched up from a mostly digital source, are jaw-droppingly pristine in their presentation of saturation, contrast, and overall digital quality. In a few words, it's just about perfect.
That, however, only describes the core footage shot by Wikus' camera crew and the meaty off-camera material, encapsulating a healthy chunk of the material that will be seen. The other side of the coin comes in the dense amount of grainy tape-style footage and digitally garbled, purposefully flawed content, utilized to give many sequences that standard security-tape / archive footage feel. Naturally, those sequences look terrible, but this Blu-ray preserves them in a fashion that befits the director's intent. They look they way they're supposed to look -- like helicopter aerial shots and underground military "Area 51" style material. When it comes to offering the experience as seen in the theaters, District 9's Blu-ray does it without missing a step.
A little more easily discernible, the DTS HD Master Audio track is pretty darn superb. It comes out of the gate with swelling, intense musical accompaniment from Clinton Short and crystal clear yet throaty verbal strength. This is a massively heavy-sounding film, rich with plenty of gunfire and explosiveness late in the film that exercises the lower-frequency channel to a taut degree. Gunshots echo across the soundstage rather well, while the explosions are largely very bombastic affairs -- save a handful, which fall with a semi-flat thud unlike the theatrical presentation. Intricate design, like the thumping of a microphone being mishandled and the slap of a clipboard against the ground, retains plenty of crispness and reaction elements to the environment. It's a highly pleasing track that powers forward to nearly the same potency as the theatrical presentation, even better in some areas.
Feature Commentary with Neill Blomkamp:
An earnest yet sober track, Neill Blomkamp dives into the nuts and bolts of the entire picture. He discusses how the prawns are both magpies and termite-like entities, designing an off-the-map style of film, and the intellect behind the film. He stays relatively scene-to-scene, starting a discussion about a sequence then going off on a slight tangent that elaborates on a broader scale. He mentions the feel of a town he was filming in directly after a heavily-publicised murder, the semi-esoteric nature of the film's political nature, and his (humble) fascination with the three-dimensional universe.
Joburg from Above: Interactive Map:
This feature essentially compiles text-based material, snippets from the film, and concept sketches/3D renderins, then plops them into a simple yet attractive map-like navigational system. It covers several locations in the film -- District 9, MNU headquarters, etc -- and discusses the locations and characters on a narrative level. It's not a terribly complex usage of BD-JAVA, but it's fun to navigate through and appealing to the eyes.
The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Journey (34:19, 1080i AVC):
This set of featurettes goes over the initiation of the project, drafting it and making it into an "entertaining film" before being a political message film. Neill Blomkamp and his writing/production crew discuss assembling the lower-budget film and its many elements. Peter Jackson discusses his participation with the film, talking a bit about the collapse of the Halo project and how it spurned this secondary idea. It's divided into three separate segments -- Envisioning District 9, Shooting District 9, Refining District 9 -- that provides in-depth glances at each and every topic covered, all available in attractive high-definition images. Topics covered include the clever usage of gray suit imaging for the aliens, the difficulty with filming in Johannesburg, post-production in the Lord of the Rings post-prod house, finding the finesse behind discovering the rhythm in the film, and some of the lessons Blomkamp learned on-set that he'll implement with his later films (possibly D9-2).
Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus (9:52, 1080i AVC):
This piece covers Sharlto Copley's changing in the picture. They dissect the time he's spent in the make-up chair, implementation of real effects instead of computer effects, and what all is included in the real effects -- from the removal of nails to the subtlety behind implementing veins on his skin. It talks about a five and a half span in the make-up chair, along with Copley joking about not having power on-set as the lead since he's sitting in the chair having his get-up removed during the wrap parties. Most of the behind-the-scenes shots that photograph the prosthetics are incredible and, often, pretty darn grotesquely unnerving, as Sarah Rubano covers all of the stages through Wikus' transformation. Simply excellent.
Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9 (12:15, 1080i AVC):
Much of District 9, believe it or not, was verbally delivered on the fly, and this featurette focuses on Sharlto Copley and the cast's improvisations. Several removed sequences are captured in behind-the-scenes shoots, while Blomkamp emphasizes the necessary evil of improvisation. Discussion also falls on the awareness of the camera during documentary sequences and Copley's frantic pacing.
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9 (13:18, 1080i AVC):
Here, the "grounded feeling" of the film's design is covered, from the real-world elements to the conceptualization of the prawn race. Blomkamp's interest in the design process becomes emphasizes, followed by the sketches and sculpting of the designs from WETA. They discuss the culture, dress, and alien technology in the picture, the thousands of illustrations that went into its build, and the "corporate" feel of the alien artillery They also discuss some great ways of making the feel of the film tangible, including an odd usage of KY fluid, and how Blomkamp attempts to hagve an '80s classic sci-fi geometry with the picture.
Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9 (10:18, 1080i AVC):
The meat behind constructing the aliens on a budget are covered here, from making the prawns look "mundane" to dealing with erratic, changing environments. It discusses painting motion-capture guy Jason Cope out of the scene and replacing him with the alien models, zooming in on his face to get the acting from his performance, and having Sharlto play with "fresh air" -- meaning nothing there in a few sequences.
Also included are several Deleted Scenes (23:28, AVC), mostly the documentary and secondary footage material (interviews, etc) as well as a handful of gray-suit sequences, and a few non-District 9 Previews. Also, the movie itself is able to be played with MovieIQ, as well as with both cineChat and Sony's BD-Live service.
Note for PS3 Owners: This Blu-ray also comes with a demo for God of War III, which is the same E3 demo available on the God of War I/II disc. It takes up a ton of hard-drive space, yet it's definitely worth the time once threw.
Quick and dirty explanation? District 9 is one of the best films of the year, and Sony's Blu-ray is one of the best Blu-rays of the year by doing the film justice. Neill Blomkamp has gathered up an idea sparked from a 6-minute short, then assembled a science-fiction picture that's profound and chaotically entrancing from start to finish. It's a melting pot of sci-fi elements, but they're molded into a picture that strays from convention and impresses with its political symbolism. Most of it revolves around Sharlto Copley's fantastic turn as Wikus, as he assembles an evolution from the oppressor to the oppressed in classic '80s horror/sci-fi fashion.
Sony's high-definition presentation goes above and beyond the call of duty by showcasing a near-perfect, accurate presentation of the way the film looks and sounds, along with coming out of the gate with a very dense array of special features that are missing only two things: the original short, and a trailer for the film itself. However, those would only be icing on top of the cake, as District 9 earns a spot in DVDTalk's Collector's Series both for the film's content and the disc's stellar presentation.