Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2009

Slumdog aliens

Neill Blomkamp emerges as a new force in action filmmaking with 'District 9'

District 9
TriStar Pictures
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: RNeill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, David James, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood, Eugene Khumbanyiwa and Robert Hobbs
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
Opened August 14, 2009
(out of four)

The legend of District 9 had already ballooned to mini-phenomenon level before it opened. Few people had even gotten the chance to see it before it became the movie everyone was talking about. Regardless of the quality of the film (which is considerable in its own right), the hype surrounding this one was an encouraging sign. When was the last time a sci-fi action movie with no stars and a small budget made any kind of dent in popular culture?

District 9 has certainly done so, meaning there's an appetite for something that - despite all the ingredients we're more than familiar with - is a breath of fresh air after a summer of reanimated Hasbro action figures and braindead cyborgs.

It's easy to say, even without seeing the film, that District 9 is "about" more than the other actioners we've seen the past few months. When we see a chaotic Johannesburg in the midst of a social struggle, as aliens - or "prawns" - are essentially held prisoner on our planet and forced into slums by the government, the parallels are clear.

Given the setting, we know we're getting an apartheid allegory, and indeed writer/director Neill Blomkamp based the story in part on the culture of apartheid he witnessed while growing up in Johannesburg. The allegory could similarly apply to immigration, homelessness or poverty in general.

But the film actually earns its sociopolitical assertions. It moves beyond mere lip service status simply with the way it explores its alien characters. And they are just that - characters. Usually, when aliens are in any kind of conflict with humans, they're made to be as static as possible. Whether ally or enemy, they're ominous, faceless figures whose purpose is to communicate to the audience, "I'm from another planet."

The prawns are a triumph of design, and special credit is owed to the concept artists and CGI technicians who crafted them with such originality and detail.

But aside from the way they look, they've been endowed with characteristics typically applied only to human characters.

They speak to one another with care and deliberation and warmth. They have hobbies, they express fear, they feel lust. They've been assimilated into South African society (albeit as second-class citizens) and learned how to survive there. They even have human names - like Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), arguably the most fully-realized character in the film.

When the story opens, the prawns are about to be forcibly moved from their current slum to another location further away from the heart of the city. Heading up the effort is Wikus (Sharlto Copley, a non-actor in a great performance), an operative for military contractor MNU, which seems to have as much or more power than the actual government.

The operation doesn't go as smoothly as Wikus cheerfully predicts, and in some of these early scenes we get a sense of the brutality often levied on the prawns and the corruption that has flourished in their community. While searching for weapons, Wikus accidentally sprays himself with an alien compound, altering his DNA. The side effects are, shall we say, noticeable.

Blomkamp combines multiple techniques - documentary footage, expert and eyewitness interviews, security cameras and standard narrative filmmaking - to get a sort of panoramic view of a Johannesburg erupting into chaos. How will the citizens react when one of their own starts becoming one of them?

In his first feature, Blomkamp displays a feel for truly being able to set a scene. Instead of relentless climaxes, there is set-up here - starting first and foremost with the potent image of the spaceship hovering, lingering over the entire city as a constant reminder. (The way the film ultimately utilizes the ship's presence is outstanding.)

His feel for action is impressive as well. There are two major setpieces in the second half of the film that require impeccable timing, and there is a tremendous fluidity to the way Blomkamp navigates a chaotic (and sometimes claustrophobic) war zone. At times, it reminded me of the way James Cameron revitalized the genre with his creativity and ingenuity with The Terminator in 1984. And like Cameron, Blomkamp knows a thing or two about wit. (Are you watching closely, Michael Bay?)

Oh, and the advanced weaponry we get to play with in District 9? Mag. Nificent.

Blomkamp certainly has the right man in his corner in Peter Jackson, who produced the film and helped secure financing. I'm almost tempted to say, "Just look at what this guy did on a $30 million budget - imagine what he could do with $100 million!"

Then again, all summer long I've seen what we often get for $100 (or $200) million, and Blomkamp has outdone them all.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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