District 9: A look back

In 2009, a viral marketing campaign began at San Diego Comic-Con for a Peter Jackson produced Sci-Fi film, directed by Canadian/South African Neill Blomkamp. Based on his short film of 2006, Alive in Joburg, it centres on the arrival of an Alien craft over the skies of Johannesburg in 1982. The Aliens arrive, not with the usual intent of murdering us all and raping the planet of its natural resource, but because their ship is broken and they’re running out of food.

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Cut to 2010 and the ship is still there. The Aliens have been settled in a refugee camp, the titular District 9. The locals hate these refugees and want them gone, ASAP. As the local government prepare to relocate the “prawns” to a different camp, the man in charge, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) attempts to serve notice on a family of aliens who are actually attempting to construct a craft to get back to the Mother-ship and go home. After Wikus accidentally sprays a fluid from an alien device in his own face, he begins to mutate into one of these aliens, turning his whole life into a living nightmare and putting him firmly into the sights of his employers, who see his mutation as the key to making the alien tech work, as it is bio coded to their species.

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The look & feel of District 9 was a breath of fresh air to me. In Blomkamp, I found a director who blended Sci-Fi concepts with gritty, realistic elements. The whole movie is basically a study in refugees and how the populous reacts to them, except the refugees are aliens. It’s no surprise that the premise for the film is inspired by the events in District 6, an apartheid camp in Cape Town. When the time comes to clear the camp, because of the way the film is shot, it looks like you could be watching these events unfold on the news whilst eating your dinner rather than watching a Sci-Fi film.

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The alien tech, including the weapons look as if they could exist in the real world and the design of the aliens themselves is really well done, they’re not your typical savage looking beasts, they actually do look like prawns! They have some very human characteristics that help you empathise with them as a viewer but they also retain that feel of being quite savage at times. Mostly they appear frightened and desperate not to be on Earth anymore.

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The special effects work on this film were quite spectacular, especially considering that it only cost $30 million to make. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to some Sci-Fi movies. The interaction between the aliens and humans looks pretty flawless and WETA Workshop did an amazing job, as always. Helps when their boss is producing the film I suppose.

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Probably the most astonishing thing about this film though is that it’s star, Sharlto Copley isn’t a star at all. He was barely even an actor having been a FX guy and producer. He was very natural as Wikus, a bumbling bureaucrat  and average guy just doing his job who begins a descent into desperation when his transformation from man to prawn proves to be irreversible for at least 3 years. He makes you care for the character, feel sympathy but also he’s not just one dimensional, he makes some questionable choices too. It’s an incredible performance also, given that he improvised all of his dialogue!

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The film is not perfect, far from it. It lacks a really good villainous performance from any of the bad guys, they’re mostly just one dimensional corporate CEO types or gang members with a lust for power. There are some glaring plot holes that on repeat watching stand out, but the film rips along at such a pace, you won’t notice them.

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Overall, District 9 was an incredible debut from a mega talented Director which some may argue he has never matched. I liked Elysium, his second movie but not as much as this. I thought Chappie was excellent and underrated and I’ll be writing about that soon. He’s now off producing his own stuff with the crowdfunded OATS Studios. They are making some very interesting stuff and I can’t wait for their first feature length release!

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