District 9 Review

Alien Nation meets The Corporation in District 9, which fuses mockumentary footage with a pretty atypically Hollywood-esque science fiction action sci-fi. In the film an advanced alien mothership is cast adrift in the skies above Johannesburg after some sort of calamity befell its pilots. Aboard are over one million worker-drones who have no understanding of their own technology nor any means to look after themselves, which leads to the creation of a relief camp below the ship which in time becomes an alien shanty town under the control of a shady multinational called MNU, that’s also harvesting the alien weaponry taken from the ship for their own arms division. After 20yrs of xenophobic civil unrest around District 9, MNU commence a relocation programme that places officious bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe in charge of evicting almost two million aliens. Wikus’s world is turned upside down when he’s exposed to a mysterious alien fluid that initiates a gradual mutation of Wikus into one of the aliens - which piques MNU’s attention as only alien DNA can activate alien weaponry. Hunted by MNU, Wikus must go on the run and work alongside an alien named Christopher Johnson who is the only person that understands how to operate the mother ship.

Call me crazy, but when a film starts off by head-butting you violently in the face with such obvious political symbolism that screams out: APARTHEID still EXISTS, CORPORATIONS are EVIL OVERLORDS, HUMANS are APATHETIC, XENOPHOBIC and VIOLENT, I expect it to back that up with a bit of depth in either the narrative context or more importantly the characterisation so I have something to stave off my own apathy towards what I’m watching. District 9 failed miserably to do this: I can’t fault the cinéma vérité style of the film, feature-length newcomer Neill Blomkamp shows some skill at weaving realism in with outlandish fantasy, but in scripting the film he only incorporated basic themes and plot-points then relied on the actors to improvise the rest. You can feel this painfully in the characterisation, which is so simplistic and one note that it’s almost insulting.

Humans fall into four classes: amoral corporate executives who will eat their children if they find out it’ll make them shit gold, amoral MNU soldiers who will beat you and/or put a bullet in your head should you so much as look at them the wrong way, amoral bureaucrats who care more about career status that human rights, and amoral Nigerian shanty-town gangsters who are exactly like the MNU soldiers but in a different colour. The only character you can relate to is the “Christopher Johnson” alien, but he’s given little screentime. Wikus is believably self-centred, but that doesn’t make for an exciting lead - which would be easier to overlook had Blomkamp focussed less myopically on him and allowed other characters a bit more development, or if he’d given Wikus a subtle character arc instead of a steeply exponential one where progress is only made in the final ten minutes.

The most successful way in which District 9 engages its audience – and considering the film’s depiction of human nature this is so hypocritical you have to laugh at the absurdity of the mixed message it sends out - is by revelling in ultra-violent death. The alien weaponry angle seems to have been conjured purely as an excuse to show humans being blown up in all manner of sadistically amusing ways. The special effects are pretty impressive so this is naturally pulled off with aplomb, so despite District 9’s post-modern social commentary it remains the very definition of a “switch your brain off and enjoy” movie. Less Alien Nation for the new millennium and more Starship Troopers - without the irony.

The Disc: Any reservations I may have about the film certainly don't extend to this Blu-ray release from Sony, the 1080p 1.85:1 transfer looks fantastic and is one of the contenders for sharpest transfer of the year, with acres of fine detail exhibited in both long shots and close ups. District 9 was shot in digital and has that clipped over-exposed digital look where whites are so hot they bloom significantly, so you are going to see high brightness and contrast levels and you are going to see black levels and shadow detail that vary wildly from shot to shot, but for the most part these aspects of the image are always spot on. Colours are perhaps a touch muted given the high exposure, you never really get the same gradation from digital that you do from film but there are many scenes in District 9 that look strikingly colourful, with bold tones that exhibit no bleed.

Grain isn’t perceivable for most of the film, and when it is perceivable it’s only a very light layer, there are also one or two infrequent pops or nicks in the image and there appears to be no noise reduction in play. Compression is excellent, the video bit rate has a relatively low average of 19.70Mbps but the AVC encode almost performs flawlessly. You won’t be distracted by any digital noise in a regular viewing, but under thorough scrutiny a little banding and micro-blocking in darker areas can be found. Very faint Edge Enhancement can be spotted at times throughout.

Sonically the Blu-ray is just as impressive; the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack brings the bustling environment of District 9 vividly to life, with a very immersive sound field that gives all five speakers lots of work to do. Bass is tight and aggressively forceful during the action sequences, whilst delicately refined in the talky segments. Dynamics are excellent, obviously some of the documentary style sequences exhibit a rawer sound that can seem tinnier or more muffled but this is all down to a stylistic choice on the director’s part, everywhere else the audio has excellent clarity and dialogue is clear and crisp throughout.

A pretty good chunk of production featurettes round up an excellent release from Sony. Whilst not particularly engrossing, they provide pretty much all you need to know about the film’s production: with the Metamorphosis feature being the standout thanks to its rather frank approach providing some fascinating insight into how gruelling a shoot it was for Sharlto Copley. An engaging audio commentary with director Neill Blomkamp also provides much insight as Blomkamp engagingly spews forth a constant stream of information on the film. One really neat feature is the option to view the disc menu with either MNU or Alien stylings, and there’s an impressively designed interactive map of Johannesburg where you can view facts on the film.

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