Back in 2009 I wrote the following about Neill Blomkamp's feature-length debut:
"Mark my words: District 9 will go down in film history as one of the most important sci-fi movies ever made. It's the best genre film I've seen since The Matrix in terms of offering up the complete package of spectacle and substance."
Well, in the intervening five years Blomkamp has given us the overly-preachy Elysium (2013) and the tonally-schizophrenic CHAPPiE (2015). Because of this, some people may call into question the quality of his Freshman effort but I'm here to re-assure you all that it's still an immutable modern classic.
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell's script posits an alternate history, one in which a massive alien spacecraft comes to rest above the city of Johannesburg in 1982. After three months of unnerving silence, the people of earth decide to take it upon themselves to cut their way into the ship, discovering a large clutch of half-starved alien worker drones inside. In what is initially viewed as a humanitarian action, the creatures are brought down to the planet's surface and housed in a temporary settlement called District 9.
But during the next twenty years, the settlement degenerates into a shantytown and then into a slum, causing enmity and mistrust to breed between the humans and the derogatorily-dubbed "prawns". When oversight of the aliens is farmed out to a private company called Multi-National United things quickly go from bad to worse. M.N.U.'s "sympathy" for the visitors is clearly mercenary since they're a lot more concerned with unlocking the genetic code that will give them unrestricted access to an arsenal of exotic alien weapons.
When a skittish M.N.U. desk-jockey named Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is charged with the daunting task of evicting close to two-million aliens from District 9 all hell breaks loose. During the operation Wikus gets spritzed by alien DNA, triggering his Kafka-esque mutation into one of the "prawns". Since he can now operate the alien weapons, Wilkus becomes the most valuable commodity on the planet. This leads to a daring escape, several interesting revelations about the visitors, a series of thrilling confrontations and considerable social commentary.
Although District 9 is partially shot like a documentary, it mercifully avoids the incessant stomach-churning camerawork of a found footage flick like Cloverfield. Although we do get some scenes with characters attempting to capture the action with "hand-held" cameras, there are also lots of of faux-interviews with "talking heads" who comment on the proceedings. Add in plenty of standard cinematic blocking and framing and the viewer remains well-grounded both visually and narratively.
The special effects are a mixed bag but serve the story quite well. The sight of that massive alien spacecraft silently parked high above the city is both convincing and disturbing. The aliens aren't quite as photo-realistic but their unique physiology and design make them compulsively watchable. Finally, the various stages of our hero's transformation evokes shades of Jeff Goldblum's icky physical degeneration in David Cronenberg's The Fly.
It's pretty self evident that the role of Wilkus was insanely challenging but Sharlto Copley was clearly up to the task. Given how much abject misery the character goes through you know that Copley really suffered for his art here. Jason Cope also does some excellent motion-capture work as Christopher the alien, engendering the character with lots of nuance and personality. As for the antagonists, David James is intimidation incarnate as the bigoted, eternally-aggro, meat-headed merc Colonel Koobus Venter.
Words can't describe how happy I am that this script by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell's dares to take the road less traveled. I loved the fact that Wikus begins the story as a hideously-flawed asshole who's motivated almost entirely by self-preservation. Even though he's clearly the protagonist, his actions are so genuinely selfish that he single-handedly justifies the alien's mistrust of humans. Mercifully the character also has a wonderfully-rich redemptive arc, something virtually unheard of in today's genre films.
This fictional scenario also comes complete with a ton of thematic relevance and sly, real-world social commentary. First off, it's no co-incidence that the alien ship first appears over Johannesburg, site our very own complicated history of racism and intolerance. Blomkamp and Tatchell also get a lot of mileage out of the "bio-mechanical" nature of the aliens and humanity's maddening inability to exploit their advanced technology.
As if deep and original concepts weren't enough to recommend the film, it's also entirely thrilling on a completely superficial level. There comes a point in time when the film completely cuts loose, racing towards a frantic, four-way clash between the aliens, a bunch of M.N.U. goons, a horde of heavily-armed Nigerians (!) and Wikus in a robotic exo-suit (!!!). This bat-shit insane finale is a veritable tour de force of editing, digital tickery, and set-piece design. When Wikus flings a car that is barreling down on him over his head I actually experienced a moment of pure, giddy, child-like glee.
Peter Jackson helped bankroll the film and it's not hard to understand why: the script features the same sort of cock-eyed dark humor and skewed sensibilities that characterized much of his earlier horror efforts. Personally I'm just relieve that the studio system is still capable of surprising me, producing a modern-day sci-fi masterpiece that manages to distinguish itself from the usual Hollywood dreck.