Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.
District 9 was an intense sci-fi/drama/thriller that is unlike any other film you'll see this year.
20 years ago an alien spaceship arrived over Johannesburg, South Africa. For months it did nothing but hover over the city before the military sent helicopters up to see what was going on. Hundreds of thousands of aliens were aboard, but near death. They were taken down to the ground and set up in a tent city where they were given food and medication. Over the years, the tent city turned into more of an internment camp where they lived a segregated life apart from the humans. Now, 20 years later, the alien problem has gotten out of control and the government has decided to move the aliens outside of the city into a smaller area. Wikus Van De Merwe is leading a group of civilians to get the aliens to sign paperwork authorizing the move. But he gets infected and starts to become alien himself, leading the military to track him down. He must now team up with the aliens he was trying to evict to not only save them, but save himself.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I went to see District 9. The previews were interesting, but would it be a horror film? Would it be a typical alien film? It actually turned out to be more of a gritty drama that happened to feature aliens. The movie is shot primarily in documentary style, which makes you feel like you're right in the middle of all the action. I've always like that technique because it allows the actors to talk directly to the audience, which is a very easy way of getting the audience to like the character. We immediately meet Wikus and get to like him and his happy-go-lucky personality, even as we hear clips from his co-workers about 'what he has done' and 'what he has become'. So you know something is about to happen, even if he seems quite normal. Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus, is a first-time feature film actor and he was tremendous. He immediately sucks you into his life and you root for him for the rest of the film. And he has to go through a huge range of emotions, from the joy of getting promoted into this hugely responsible position, to the fear and anger of what is happening to him. The fact that he is a complete unknown, as opposed to throwing in a somewhat recognizable actor, was important in making the movie feel very real. It simply would not have worked any other way.
Director Neill Blomkamp is also a first-time feature director, having done mostly visual effects before this. But somewhere along the way, Peter Jackson saw his work and decided he was the man to helm this film. His visual effects background definitely helped because the special effects were almost seamless. The aliens were thrown right into the ghetto and looked like they belonged there. At no time did I think, wow, that looked fake. It is sometimes easier to see bad special effects when they're in the middle of a big budget Hollywood production, and so making this a gritty documentary style film certainly helped. The best of the effects came from watching people blow up. We get to see some alien weapon technology at work and with a couple of their weapons, when they hit something it explodes like if you've taken a hammer to a tomato. Truly fascinating to watch.
The movie has a lot of those kinds of explosions, along with a lot of other disgusting mutilated bodies, of aliens and animals. But what made me laugh was that the audience only cringed twice, once when Wikus's fingernails started to come off, and once when his teeth fell out. I think that also showed how close the audience felt to Wikus because it was his pain that we felt, and not the pain of any of the other characters. The only other character we even got remotely close to was one of the aliens, who was given the name Christopher Johnson. He was the one alien who seemed to want to try and do something about his situation, and his 'something' was what the movie hinged on. He also had a young son (?) who had never seen his home planet, but who was still somehow very cute. At first Wikus had to try and evict Chris, but as the movie continued, they ended up on the same side, fighting for survival.
There were some moments towards the middle of the film where the movie slowed down a lot. It was mostly a transitional period where strange things start happening to Wikus and he is forced to hide in the place least likely to be searched. He goes through a huge range of emotions and it got a little long. And then at the end of the film the movie took a strange turn. Part of the plot of the film centered around the human need to try and use alien weaponry. Wikus became a person of interest because of his special skill set and so they were hunting him. While trying to save Chris, Wikus dons this Iron Man-esque suit that also made him a lot like Robocop. The rest of the movie felt very real, even though it involved aliens. But once that suit was put on, the movie felt more like, well, a movie. I kind of wish the filmmakers had gone in a slightly different direction at the end. The movie lost its magic at that point.
There were some story elements that we never got to understand. Why the aliens ended up there in the first place was one. We hear a short story of their arrival and then we're whisked 20 years into the present, but I don't believe we ever hear why they showed up. They obviously don't speak English, and yet the aliens and humans were able to understand each other quite easily. I guess after 20 years of learning that might be possible? But it seemed too simple. And the ending of the film had too much of a Hollywood feel. It leaves itself wide open to a sequel, which may have been the point, but again, considering the grittiness of the rest of the film, the end could have been done better.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, I've gone back and forth on District 9 and decided that I liked it. I'm not 100% sure I'd go see it again in theaters, but I'll definitely buy the DVD when it comes out. That must count for something.