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 Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log
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
Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9
Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9
Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9
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.