After seeing all the trailers, a few clips and the countless "humans only" banners all over L.A. I went into this film expecting that, for once, a film might stick to its guns and maintain an atypical structure.
District 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp and is based on his short film "Alive in Joburg" (which I've embedded at the end of this blog). The film opens with a documentary style bit of background on the aliens with footage of their arrival, current living conditions and all manner of human reactions to them. Its very very well done. All of it had a stripped down realism to it. Often times films that boast a documentary style end up looking far too treated. District 9 maintained a nice air of grimy realism. It portrayed the ugliness of humanity, our fear of foreigners, our treatment of anyone not like "us" and was appropriately brutal at times. The entire movie I feared for the safety of the main characters more so than I have in a long while. Nobody's safety is guaranteed.
The special effects where fantastic. District 9 was made on a budget of just $30 million and it looks far more expensive. The aliens are most often depicted in full on mid day and afternoon light without protecting or burying matte lines/textures in filters (ala LOTR) or quick cuts (ala Transformers). All of these effects shots are handled in the manner of news footage, the camera man WANTS to stare at the aliens as much as you do. And so they linger on them... and they hold up in just about any light. The alien language was also fascinating and borrowed quite a bit from Attack of the Clones' Geonosians who were also insectoid and spoke in a series of clicks. It also may have been there intent to borrow from earlier languages of some African tribes. Either way it was interesting to listen to.
What ultimately did bother me about District 9 however was that it opens and maintains the documentary structure as you watch footage of a member of the alien affairs agency being put in charge of evicting the population of District 9 to a new location further away from the human population (it was sort of a modernization of the "relocating" that continually happened with the Native Americans or a lighter version of Nazi's relocating citizens during WW2). However, a plot line soon begins to develop within this documentary structure and so it's very suddenly dropped. Essentially what is happening here is that the narrative goes from a first person structure (an unseen 'always behind the camera' camera person and the people he/she is immediately following who speak into the camera) to an omnipotent third person narrative (where we are shown characters at different locations, characters working against each other and general happenings that the documentary crew is clearly not privy to or actually filming). The camera work however stays with a generally news footage like, over the shoulder shooting approach so visually, its relatively unchanged. The jarring shift in point of view was something that took me out of the movie for a time though. If they'd just said 'the following footage is a re-inactment of theorized events that followed our footage' it would have been covered. Or they could have stopped the footage, faded to black and put up a title card saying "no one knows what happened to... after that" and then fade into what is clearly no longer documentary footage. It was an easy fix and a glaringly odd decision from both a writing and editing stand point and I would love to know why, under the watchful eye of Peter Jackson's producing, this was not handled better.
The other complaint many reviewers have had was that the final act does get a bit video game. I personally feel that events were already at a boiling point with the alien refugees of District 9 (and by that, I mean the level of abuse perpetrated by humans) so the violence was both inevitable and logically brought forth. It did not feel as video game as it could have (it does not go Starship Troopers or anything and was hardly what one would even label battle... skirmish is more the word I'd use). I believe the only reason many reviewers are pointing this out is that they've seen footage of Halo (who in the mainstream hasn't by now?) and any usage of alien looking weaponry in a military like setting is labeled video game violence. This was much more of an 'it was bound to happen' scenario.
The film also delivered something I desperately feared it wouldn't: aliens treated as real characters, interacting with the main character and becoming main characters themselves. Most film makers seem to steer clear of treating their non human (and often cg) characters with the same care and respect they do their human cast (aside from George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro). One of the biggest complaints about Transformers from fans is why do we need so many human chaperones when the source material consisted of a 98% robot cast? District 9 treats it alien cast with easily as much sympathy (at times more so) as its human cast. I cannot praise them enough for that.
Overall I really enjoyed District 9. It did what true science fiction was meant to do: take very real social/political/philosophical issues and translate them into an alternate setting in order to explore possibilities and pose its audience questions to ponder after completion. This is definitely a work of art other story tellers should look to as a positive role model.
It is a bit funny that reviewers mentioned video game violence since apparenty Blomkamp was slated to direct Halo for Peter Jackson but that project seems to have fallen off the radar after several budgeting issues. If you'd like, you can see some demo footage from Blomkamp and WETA here that was used as promotional advertising for Halo 3. I personally would rather see a more polished style for Halo as the game is more in the cleaner, polished, filtered looking science fiction of an Iron Man or the Star Trek relaunch. However I would LOVE to see director Neill Blomkamp tackle Gears of War (as it's gameplay is presented in a very CNN war coverage style and needs a director who gets sci-fi, gets "gritty", does not sensationalize violence but does not shy from it either). He would also be very good for World War Robot (which I've written two previous blogs about). Either way, I'm sure he'll be getting plenty of calls for work by monday.
The original "Alive in Joburg"