Originally published in the August 16, 2009 edition of The Source.
Bitingly satirical, surprisingly insightful and unrelentingly entertaining, “District 9” finds new uses for the pseudo-documentary format while spinning an exciting and action-packed extraterrestrial thriller.
The first feature from Neill Blokamp, “District 9” takes place in Johannesburg, 20 years after a flying saucer settled over the metropolis and its inhabitants were made to live in the South African slums. The faux-documentary follows meek and nerdy bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) as he and his staff force eviction notices on the aliens, preparing them for a move away from humans and into the internment camp-like District 10.
As most audiences (possibly excluding “Transformers” fans) will pick up, the documentary is fake - aliens, of course, never did land in South Africa. Blokamp isn’t attempting a Christopher Guest-style fake-out; he uses the documentary style to create the world in which the film takes place, letting the actions and words of Van De Merwe’s team work as exposition. The attention to detail is remarkable, from the aliens’ salvaged clothes, the acknowledgement that humans and Prawns have known each other long enough to learn each other’s languages, and the black market that rises up, founded on a surprising source of revenue.
The opening sequences are astonishing; the aliens, derisively named “Prawns” because of their multiple tentacles, occupy the screen in a way I wasn’t used to. Most special-effects shots look clean and airbrushed, carefully fit into a painstakingly crafted frame. Due to “District 9’s” documentary format, the camera bobs and zooms, switching from film stock to video, while the computer-generated creations simply fill the space realistically. Quickly and without sacrificing narrative flow or entertainment value, Blokamp creates this world and sets the film’s rules. It’s as confident a debut as I’ve ever seen for a filmmaker.
Exposition out of the way, Blokamp quickly abandons the documentary technique to focus on the fallout of Van De Merwe’s exposure to alien fluids. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that the film takes on elements of sci-fi horror and social commentary before its final, gleefully violent, action finale, never losing its wit, charm or heart.
Much of this is owing to Copley who, in his acting debut, creates one of the most bizarre action heroes ever put to film. Van De Merwe starts the film as a bumbling, comical exaggeration of a government worker. As his situation grows direr, Copley drops the shtick and shows a hero deeply in love with his wife, desperate to get back to the way things were and, finally, outraged at injustice. It’s a fantastic performance and I’m amazed at just how skillfully Copley handles the physical and emotional requirements of the role.
The film seems to effortlessly flow from a social commentary, using the South African setting as shorthand for its tale of a new kind of apartheid, to gross-out horror film and finally to guns-blazing, blood-splattering action extravaganza. It does so without the inflated sense of ego that weighs down Michael Bay’s films or the “check your brain at the door” mentality of far too many summer films. It’s the rare movie that ably delivers laughs and thrills without sacrificing style or intelligence.
There’s a growing belief that critics hate anything with explosions, special effects or aliens. That’s not true; we simply ask that they be used at the service of telling coherent and involving stories. Coming at the tail end of a summer filled with mediocre popcorn films, “District 9” is one that this critic welcomes with open arms.