Behind District 9, one of the most kick-ass, and awesome films of the year, is a question that has been part of the public (especially America’s cinematic consciousness) for a very long time. The question is this: what if you were the thing you hated or oppressed? Elia Kazan tackled it directly, but to slightly weird results, but – again – it’s not a new concept, and in Obama’s America, it may not have had the same punch it would have six or twenty years ago. But it’s a great starting place for a faux-documentary action spectacle. My review of District 9 after you hit the button that lets you keep reading this story. Boom.
Sharlto Copley stars as Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned to move refugees from one district to another. What’s different here is that the refugees are aliens, from some unknown planet, who came here in an abandoned ship that was eventually investigated, and the “prawns” given a place to stay in South Africa, near where they landed. Wilkus is assigned to move them, and is cavalier in his attitude towards their offspring and has no problems with violence geared towards them in general. But then he stumbles across a prawn’s home (named Christopher Johnson), and gets shot in the face with some liquid that is not only jet fuel but also transmogrified Wikus, who gets sick and eventually reveals that he is turning into a prawn.
Advanced marketing on this film was super successful in keeping me in the dark about the narrative, so if such things bother you, please stop reading. From there it moves into the buddy cop genre, as Wikus is to be exploited by his fellow people, only to escape and seek refuge with the prawn he is sure knows something. The two don’t really like each other, and so there relationship is questionable at best, but they try and stay together, and maybe Wikus learns some lessons. But in working together they have to take on a great number of both mercenaries and the indigenous poor who want the powers and tech of prawn, though think they can get it through mysticism.
What makes the film work is that – for what amounts to a low budget movie – holy god is it well realized. You never question the universe, or the effects, and thought the film was shot on the red camera, the digital photography enhances the documentary-like feel. The film is held together by Copley, who like Zach Galifianakis and Christoph Waltz has launched himself from one role into the spotlight. And there is something to this as Wikus is both someone you don’t particularly care for at moments, but also your avatar, your guide, and someone you sympathize with. Though his transformation back to humanoid shape is the driving force of the third act, you can see why he might cut off a finger just to see what happens. It’s both incredible hateful, and poignant at the same time.
The film was co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson, but Jackson’s involvement was likely minimal, and as the film suggests, this is outsider art. Blomkamp spent his time growing up in South Africa while the country changed post-apartheid, but the film isn’t necessarily about South Africa so much as how bourgeois cultures treat fugees, and the other. And the film works on the two levels it is trying to: as a metaphor for how certain cultures treat the other, and how minorities often treat each other poorly when nearby, and as an n action film that delivers in spades, and features a mech suit and kinds of crazy technology.
Sony Pictures presents the film on Blu-ray in a two-disc set. There’s a PSP downloadable version of the film, and a Digital copy, along with a sample of the PS3 game God of War 3. The film is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. This transfer is right from the source, and the picture quality could probably not be improved. Extras on the film include a commentary by Neill Blomkamp that is super engaging, and an interactive map of the location, which offers GPS tracking for the film’s locations, and all sorts of text and video goodies. There’s 22 deleted scenes (23 min.), a making of called “Alien Agenda” (34 min.) broken into three parts, with Copley, Blomkamp, co-writer Terri Thatchell, and Peter Jackson interviews. “Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus” (10 min.) shows how everything done to Wikus/Copley was practical, “Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9” (12 min.), talks to the faux/doc approach and how the actors were given room, “Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9” (13 min.) speaks on the alien, mech and weapon design, and “Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9” (10 min.) is fairly well self-explanatory. These pieces are solid, and definitely worth the time, as the film is a marvel of low budget invention. Bonus trailers are also included. The take away here is that at some point people will no longer think of this as a movie that cost $30 Million dollars and was easily better than almost every other summer blockbuster that year, but as a good to great film, period.