Now less than a week away from one of my most highly anticipated films of the year, “Chappie”, I thought there would be no better time to take a look back at director Neil Blomkamp’s previous works, starting with his debut title “District 9”.
Originally attached to work on the developing “Halo” movie adaptation being produced by “Middle Earth” director Peter Jackson. Blomkamp looked poised to bring a vision of “Halo” onto the big screen; even shooting test footage (that you can still find online). Unfortunately the project got derailed and put on the back burner (unfortunate considering how much I want to see “Halo” on the big screen being a big fan of the game series) and Blomkamp had to move on to a new project. Peter Jackson believing in his vision produced Blomkamp’s adaptation of one of his own (Blomkamp’s) short films to be called “District 9”. This first time director proved himself a talent to watch for the years to come with an Oscar nominated Sci-Fi film that equaled part thrilling but also thought provoking. The writing and the creativity of “District 9” is unparalleled, making this surprise hit one of the best the year 2009 had to offer.
After an alien craft gets stuck on Earth, the aliens are removed from the safety of their ship and placed in a slum like camp in South Africa, called District 9. Treated poorly, crime is rampant throughout District 9 as the people of Johannesburg are split on how to treat the Alien beings. The government decides it’s time to move them away from the city and place them into a new camp. As the humans start handing out eviction notices, one of them gets exposed to a toxic chemical agent. Transforming his biology to one of the aliens, and this government agent becomes a fugitive from the government being forced to hide in District 9.
What strikes early on is Blomkamp’s unique sense of style which feels fresh and new. Throughout the movie, Blomkamp mixes together documentary styles, news footage segments and mixes it with traditional movie making which gives this movie a good sense of realism. A lot of films throw in the occasional CNN footage reel here and there, to attempt to make the story seem more grounded but what’s different here is how Blomkamp executes it. It isn’t just one news clip Blomkamp attempts to play or mimic, throughout the movie he is switching it up. Under less careful hands this could prove to be mess, but Blomkamp gracefully and smoothly transitions between all the different elements and in effect makes the movie feel like something that would happen in our world; drawing us in to the illusion of filmmaking more and more. The violent parts feel more violent, the disgusting parts feel more disgusting and the human moments feel more human.
It’s also a nice breath of fresh air not to have a movie about an Alien species coming to Earth to wipe us out. No the alien craft didn’t come down on New York or LA, just Johannesburg ; and the aliens actually just want to get home. It’s refreshing to have the violence not motivated by aliens attempting to eradicate us but instead because of a tension filled relationship with the humans.
In the film the aliens (nicknamed prawns) are treated like second class citizens. Part of it is social commentary driven, with aliens representing racism and a disconnect between cultures. As a further extension you could see it as a commentary on how we handle refugees from different parts of the world; there are many ways to look at it. The social commentary never gets preachy but it’s certainly there and present as a backdrop to the story the filmmakers are telling. It never hits you over the head with a hammer which can get annoying. It’s nice to see a filmmaker with a voice but also nice to see a filmmaker knows when to keep that voice down in service of the story.
It’s no wonder why Blomkamp was originally pegged by Peter Jackson to direct a “Halo” movie. From an action stand point Blomkamp does not disappoint whatsoever. The action in this movie is very down, dirty, gritty, realistic and all around thrilling, There is a weight to them because Blomkamp did such a good job building up the characters that when the action hits you’re interested to see how or if, he (or it) will survive; which lends some gravitas to the film. The nature of how the movie (and the action) is shot is to give the film an almost chaotic tone. The camera does move around a lot but Blomkamp understands not to go all out “shaky cam” when shooting a scene.
One of the biggest things I find that gets overlooked with “District 9” is the performance of Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe. Wikus one of the chief heads from the corporation MNU (the company contracted by the government to take care of the District 9 issues) and gets exposed to some alien toxin; which starts changing the biology in his body to become like one of the prawns. Wikus starts to become hunted by the government so they can learn how to use the alien weapons (which are all biology base and only work with them). Wikus might turn out to be the key to unlocking how to use them.
Wikus actually starts off very unlikeable. A very sleazy guy, that will side step the law and treats the prawns like dirt. Like so many people Wikus is pretty bigoted towards them. He has a nice wife he loves but an estranged relationship with his father in law. The crux in Copley’s performance is getting us to buy into that aspect of him but then begin to care about him as the film goes on. Once he starts to (literally) become a prawn and steps into their shoes (so to speak) he becomes more and more sympathetic. Wikus isn’t perfect, far from it. He feels human though, he makes mistakes, makes bad choices but at the same time you understand why. Copley is able to make him likeable enough to make him sympathetic but realistic to make him empathetic and a screw up.
Sometimes when you look at a budget of a film you think to yourself, how did it cost that much? “The Legend of Hercules” cost like 70 million dollars for some of the worst on screen production value I’ve ever seen in a high budget mainstream movie. When you think of flawless looking effects you think of movies like “Avatar” (estimated roughly around a 285 million dollar budget) or “Pacific Rim” (190 million dollar budget), whose mega budgets help push the visual effect to unprecedented heights.
“District 9” on the other hand cost a mere 30 million dollars to makes and the effects are outstanding. All the aliens are computer generated and never is there a moment where you think, that obviously fake. The creatures have some depth and soul to them, and the production value never looks cheap either. The prosthetics are striking while the visual are awe inspiring. Only very small little moments do you ever notice a flaw in an effect. But, the camera never lingers on those shots long enough for it to make a lasting impressive to care nor complain about it. How this movie only cost 30 million dollars, baffles me.
This is a sci-fi movie that went on to surpass mainstay sci-fi pictures to become something more grand and impressive. I do believe this should have been a front runner to win best picture, not sure if it should have won but still very close to the best film of that year. What a great way to kick off a career; a more than impressive debut for director Neil Blomkamp.