To almost everybody except Peter Jackson, District 9 was a complete surprise when it landed in late summer of 2009, hovering over the box office like an extraterrestrial mothership. Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut, an adaptation of his 2006 short film Alive in Joburg, earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, helped galvanize a renaissance of original science fiction projects that also included Duncan Jones’ Moon and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, and immediately established Blomkamp as an important new voice in feature filmmaking. And then Elysium happened. And Chappie after that.
Blomkamp is far from the first filmmaker to deliver a dynamic, groundbreaking, even instant-classic debut, only to putter away that promise in projects that seldom if ever lived up to it. But that fall-off, or subsequent failure, raises the question: Why didn’t they reach that height again? There are many possible explanations — an independent-minded artist becoming overwhelmed by the studio system; a single focused burst of creativity expressed in that initial idea, never matched or duplicated; and perhaps less generously, a fortuitous rather than groundbreaking alignment of originality and timing that the industry and moviegoing community enjoyed and moved on from, never to return. In other words, maybe he was never that good to begin with.
District 9 arrived this week on 4K UHD, an exceptional showcase for a film shot primarily with the Red One 4K camera. With the film re-entering the public consciousness again, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit not just its technical merits but artistic legacy, both as an indication of what was – and is – to come from Blomkamp, and also as a thought-provoking piece of entertainment deserving of our enjoyment and adoration. More succinctly, was District 9 a filmmaking breakthrough, or was it a fluke?
To be fair, Blomkamp didn’t magically appear out of nowhere. After directing commercials and short films, he developed an adaptation of the video game Halo in the mid-2000s with Peter Jackson, and signed to direct. In fact, many of the props used in District 9 were first designed for Halo. But when financing for that project fell apart, Blomkamp decided to make District 9 his first feature, co-writing the script with his wife Terri Tatchell. In addition to directing, Blomkamp created the visual effects for many of his own short films, not just showcasing his versatility, but an understanding of how best to use visual effects for storytelling purposes.
Borrowing ideas from his 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, Blomkamp and Tatchell developed a mythology in which the ship from an extraterrestrial race comes to rest over Johannesburg, South Africa, and its million passengers are relocated in slums where poverty and crime run rampant. The concept, the locale, and the themes woven into its story offered a vision that audiences hadn’t seen for years, if ever, in science fiction. And Blomkamp’s thorough understanding of filmmaking from both a technical and artistic viewpoint made him a director to watch – and when the film came out in August 2009, critics and audiences did just that.
Blomkamp’s use of South Africa’s own disgraceful history of apartheid immediately enhances the storytelling, but critics readily noticed parallels between other marginalized groups and the experiences of the “prawns,” the expatriate aliens facing relocation by corporate weapons manufacturer Multinational United, upon its initial release. The film uniquely spotlights a history immediately familiar to South African native Blomkamp while drawing important and powerful parallels to other communities and countries marked by racial strife, removed but sharply focused by the idea of “speciesism.” The treatment of the alien species closely resembles that of the South African government’s treatment of Blacks during apartheid, but could form an easy parallel with people of color in the United States, and immigrants in countries across the globe who are vilified and abused — and moreover, used as propaganda to advance corporate interests and more sinister agendas.
Blomkamp accomplishes these goals in a way that’s fascinatingly if unevenly humanistic. His story follows Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a MNU middle-manager tasked with leading an eviction plan to relocate more than a million “prawns” to a new site miles outside of Johannesburg. Wikus is blissfully unaware of his own prejudices towards the creatures when he launches the relocation effort, but soon confronts them when an accident begins to transform him into one of them. Admittedly, there’s a “Black like me” aspect to the plot, forcing Wikus to walk a mile in the shoes of the creatures he’s callously commanding to vacate their homes and communities — homes and communities that are poorly supported by economic and social programs. But more generally, Blomkamp forces an individual who is part of the ruling class to confront his own privilege, to view first-hand the injustice visited upon these creatures, and finally, to recognize the machinery of a corporate-controlled bureaucracy that oppresses not just the visibly underprivileged but even the individuals who like himself who reinforce their authority.
Upon its original release, some critics branded the film a “white savior” story because Wikus helps prawn Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) regain ownership of the material that enables him to activate the mothership and save his people. I’d argue that’s a less nuanced interpretation of the events in the film than it deserves: Wikus’ behavior more or less inadvertently empowers Christopher because it’s in Wikus’ self-interest to help Christopher, and the true journey he takes is to develop awareness and sensitivity towards the creatures that he was helping military and political forces control. Becoming a “test subject” merging human and prawn DNA is almost entirely a bad, damaging, hurtful experience for Wikus, and what he gains from it is true compassion — the ability to see beyond his own self-interest.
At the same time, I am not sure that Blomkamp fully successfully mitigates his portraits of Nigerian gangsters, who are bottom-feeding criminals and quite possibly cannibals. Certainly I think it’s fair to argue that the film lacks enough complex portraits of characters of color. But also, is it Blomkamp’s place to create those? Can and should he attempt to create that nuance and authenticity without that direct experience? Again, it’s not enough to write Black characters who are criminal and even evil without a better attempt at counterbalance, but criticism of films released since District 9 (some science fiction and some not) has reiterated that it’s difficult and even dangerous to presume to tell stories about characters and communities from backgrounds unlike the filmmaker’s. The question that remains is how much of that choice is a reflection of the film’s internal worldview, and how much it’s Blomkamp’s own blind spot.
In terms of the overall efficacy of the film, District 9 holds up beautifully with some terrific twists and turns, really terrific action sequences, and an emotional throughline that builds to a very poignant crescendo. Blomkamp’s admitted (and obvious) inspirations from the Aliens, Predator and Robocop series manage not to feel derivative in a way that lesser filmmakers’ “homages” sometime have, incorporating those ideas organically to elevate the tension and generate sequences that feel new and innovative. Blomkamp’s palpable knowledge of video games and their internal technology, such as weapons and equipment, only amplifies the creativity of scenes where these different parties are trying to obtain and maintain control of Wikus and the biological possibilities of his mutating body, culminating in a violent but affecting finale.
Blomkamp’s partial found-footage approach mostly works, but what doesn’t feels mostly excusable as a young filmmaker’s ambition outpacing his skill set; the transitions between “documentary” or security-camera angles and straightforward storytelling blur perspectives without a consistent or meaningful enough purpose, especially as MNU’s corporate initiatives to harvest Wikus’ organs and utilize his DNA to obtain control of alien technology become more transparent. Then again, mileage may vary — or be entirely unimportant — on that aspect of the film’s technique, depending on your inclination to accept or immerse yourself as a viewer in that maze of perspectives.
Looking at Blomkamp’s subsequent work, it’s hard not to view his career with an uneven, if not downward trajectory. Elysium received mixed reviews at the time of its release, but certainly it didn’t receive the adulation of District 9, and Chappie was heavily criticized for bringing some big ideas to the screen, but leaving even bigger questions unanswered. But it’s also undeniable that Blomkamp asks those questions in the first place, and views science fiction storytelling as an opportunity to exercise and explore notions of the future, and present, of the human experience. To some extent, you wonder if he hasn’t become (or made himself) a prisoner of the success he experienced with his first film: its techniques were incredibly ambitious, and its ideas and sociological themes extremely relevant — so perhaps audiences expect those things every time he makes a film, or he’s placed that on himself? These days there are fewer filmmakers trying to truly say something than ever, but one imagines it must be paralyzing to find a subject or idea that encapsulates or explores a concept from the zeitgeist and still tell a great story at the same time.
Going back to the initial question of Blomkamp as an artist, quite frankly there’s simply too many ideas, too much style, and a considerable mastery of storytelling injected and immersed in District 9 to dismiss it as a fluke, or discount the filmmaker as a one-hit wonder. Even if his other films failed to meet an equal level of success or capture that same energy, they present a distinctive viewpoint that combines a sense of social consciousness and technical proficiency that many other, even more established directors lack. All of which to some extent is why the filmmaker’s “put it in the world” plans for Alien and Robocop sequels actually feel less exciting to hear about, rather than more; where those worlds already have built-in sociopolitical commentaries, what makes Blomkamp’s films interesting are ideas he introduces to audiences, and the way he executes them across inventive and cohesive landscapes. In which case, District 9 may not have led to a consistently successful creative (or commercial) path, but it led to a unique promise — a possibility; and among Hollywood’s young visionaries, I suppose I’d opt for someone who’s trying to do great things and falling short over someone who isn’t trying at all.