District 9 Review
Film review by Matt Shingleton
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.
Sony's DVD release of District 9 is a one-disc affair which contains a strong transfer along with some useful extras.
The 1.85:1 transfer is anamorphically enhanced and extremely impressive; probably about as good as you'll get on DVD although presumably inferior to the Blu-Ray release. The film was made on digital video and has a look of documentary immediacy which includes a certain amount of deliberately inferior image quality. Considering the intended look of the film, the DVD offers an excellent representation. There is a small amount of grain but no obvious problems with over-enhancement. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is exceptional throughout, giving a thorough workout to the surround speakers and plenty of action for the bass.
The best of the extras is the audio commentary simply because Neill Blomkamp is an engagingly enthusiastic speaker who is very proud of his work. He speaks without much hesitation for the full running time of the film and comes out with interesting stories and observations. The documentary, in three parts, is about 35 minutes long and mildly diverting without being compelling, although there are some interesting observations about the choice of South Africa for filming and the third part will interest anyone with a burgeoning passion for editing. The twenty-odd minutes of deleted scenes are strictly for fans of the film and entirely dispensible - the removals were obviously for pacing reasons and given the over-length of the film, it was right to get rid of them.
As so often these days, some of the extras from the Blu-Ray release are absent from the DVD, notably four featurettes and the Interactive Map.
My own views on the film are similar to Matt's. It seems that serious SF is so rare these days that any halfway intelligent film in the genre is seized upon as some kind of masterpiece. Having said that, I did enjoy watching it quite a lot and as an action movie, it's gripping and exciting. Consequently, I've slightly upped the film rating that Matt gave.
6 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
6 out of 10