If it takes the name of a famous director above the title to get films like this made, then I can’t object to the transparent false advertising. Peter Jackson may produce this film, but Neill Blomkamp has created (he wrote and directed, adapting from his short film) a great piece of modern alien sci-fi, set in the slummy side of Johannesburg, South Africa. And, yes, the obvious reference to apartheid is there, but that’s not what the film is about – it’s about humanity, the treatment of immigrants, and the abuse of one class of people by another. But it’s also a cracking thriller, with amazing special effects, very alien aliens and a mecha suit that blows shit up.
The film is more amazing for the fact that it only cost $30 million to make – it looks fantastic. The photoreal aliens are incredible, but the film doesn’t focus on them – they are just there, part of the background, accepted as part of the reality. This is helped by the faux documentary style that is used for a major portion of the film (although it dispenses with it in most of the intense action scenes, which jars a little), and the attitude of the people in the movie. Of the people, the standout is Sharpito Copley as Wikus, a white collar drone charged with moving the aliens from District 9 to a new area well outside of Johannesburg, whose life changes when some alien liquid squirts on him. What is more amazing is that this was his first acting job (he was an FX guy before) and that he mostly improvised his dialogue; he gives a great performance of an ordinary man undergoing a mental as well as physical transformation, but who is still powered by selfishness and racism and disregard for others (in fact, he comes across as a bit of a prick, and deliberately so).
The film isn’t completely perfect – some of the ‘bad guy’ characters are a little one note and wooden, the documentary parts can seem a little flat, and there are occasional lapses in logic that are ignored for the sake of the plot – but it’s a very impressive debut from a 29-year-old South African with a strong voice, good storytelling skills and visual flair. And any film where a lot of the dialogue involves people exclaiming ‘Fook!’ in that South African accent has a lot to offer.
District 9 does owe something to Peter Jackson, in that there are traces of his Bad Taste in both the lead character and the gross nature of exploding flesh, but Blomkamp also references other science fiction films, but without emphasising the homages. The film itself is very much its own entity and unlike most of the ‘blockbuster’ cinema out there. Not only is it a film with an actual idea behind it but it is also an entertaining piece of action cinema that is thrilling and enjoyable.