For the last year or two, famed New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and unknown South African digital effects wizard Neill Blomkamp had conspired to produce and direct (respectively) a film based on the Halo video game franchise. For whatever arcane Hollywood reasons, the collaboration fell through. Unwilling to sit on their thumbs, Jackson and Blomkamp opted instead to shoot a feature-length version of Blomkamp’s celebrated short sci-fi film “Alive in Joburg.”
Like the short, District 9 is a gritty faux documentary thattakes us to Johannesburg in South Africa to witness the momentous arrival of a towering alien spaceship. Instead of heavenly voices and benevolent, super-intelligent space brothers, us humans are greeted by a race of starving, diseased, crustacean-like creatures whose crumbling UFO has simply run out of gas. Unsure of what to do with these million or so wretched refugees, South Africa sets up District 9, an alien internment camp eerily reminiscent of the Apartheid-era slums. Apparently, they’re just too “alien” to cuddle up to.
Twenty years down the line, tensions are running high. Instead of integrating these “prawns”—as they are sarcastically dubbed—into human society, they’re still marginalized, demonized and segregated into a crowded dump of a shantytown. Worse still, the slums are overrun with black marketeers desperate to scavenge whatever bits of vaguely fathomable alien weaponry can be found. Deciding it’s high time to do something about this, the government—with the assistance of a multinational corporation and an army of machine-gun-equipped private contractors—moves to evict the extraterrestrials and send them to a newer, even more restrictive camp far outside of Johannesburg.
Can you believe the city paid $140,000 for this public art?
Here’s where our fake documentary crew comes in. They’re there, ostensibly, to record the efforts to evict the alien squatters. Leading this effort is a grinning idiot of a government bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe (first-time feature film actor Sharlto Copley). Entering District 9 with a stack of forms and a contingent of trigger-happy corporate soldiers, Van De Merwe soon makes an utter mess of things. Within hours of entering the internment camp, it’s like a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans crossed with occupied Iraq.
As in Blomkamp’s short, the digital effects are eye-popping—especially when you take into account the film’s relative bargain-basement budget (a reported $30 million). Newsreel footage of actual Apartheid-era riots adds an eerie sense of reality to the proceedings. And like his mentor Peter Jackson, Blomkamp demonstrates a gory, bloody, meat-flinging sense of humor. What District 9 adds to the solid building block of “Alive in Joburg” is a plot and a main character—both of which make for arguably valuable additions. Blomkamp’s 10-minute short had the look and feel of a viral video. (Seriously, look it up on YouTube.) Watching it, you couldn’t help but think, This isn’t real, is it? District 9 breaks that illusion fairly quickly, dropping the documentary style when it needs to move the story along and picking it up again when it’s convenient. Part of me wishes Blomkamp had stuck to his original vision a bit more. The real/fake background of this story (old news footage, on-the-street interviews) is fascinating, and much more time could have been spent on it. But Blomkamp is rather set on turning this into an action-packed chase film, and when he shows off his sizable pyrotechnic skills, it’s hard to argue with the decision. This raw, shot-on-the run action footage set amid awesome alien carnage is a powerful argument that we, as an audience, got rooked on that long-lost Halo deal.
Adding Wikus Van De Merwe as our main character is even more questionable. He’s mostly a selfish buffoon—hardly the stuff of cinematic heroes. It leaves viewers with no one to really root for over a majority of the film’s runtime. Eventually Van De Merwe rises to the occasion, but we’re so deep into action movie fireworks by then, it’s almost an afterthought.
I liked District 9 a lot. It’s fresh, it’s clever, it’s dripping with mad filmmaking skills. I wish I could say I love, love, loved it. But there are a few shortfalls that keep it from perfection. Still, in a summer that’s given us such fare as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a film as smart, plucky and flat-out attention-grabbing as District 9 deserves some serious consideration. It’s easily the best South African / New Zealand cinematic collaboration since ... um, I’ll get back to you on that one.