When the buzz began for District 9 several months ago, I have to admit that I too was bitten by the bug. A science fiction tale that combined aliens and apartheid sounded quite intriguing. And as I read more and more about the movie itself – Neill Blomkamp‘s first major directorial effort, $30 million dollar budget, and unknown lead actor Sharlto Copely – I became more and more interested to see this movie.
And when I finally saw it a couple of weeks ago, I have to say that I enjoyed it but was disappointed. I don’t think it lived up to the hype.
District 9 is about a group of aliens whose ship stalled above South Africa twenty years before. And now, below the unmoving ship, lies a slum where the aliens have been locked away due to their inability to integrate peacefully with their neighboring South Africans. These aliens, called “prawns” because they sort of look like giant shrimp, are scavengers with great strength and little thought. When humans started to die at their hands, a military solution was sought to solve the problem.
Multi-National United (MNU), a worldwide provider of arms and private military forces, was called in to relocate the aliens from their District 9 slum to a new tent city far from populated areas. Wikus van der Merwe (Copley) is given the task of moving the now 1.8 million aliens to the tent city. Shack by shack, Wikus and his group work their way through the district getting “signatures” from the prawns who live there so they know about the relocation process.
While getting one of these “signatures”, Wikus and his team stumble on a strange shack with a cache of computers and weapons. Wikus is sprayed with a strange black substance while looking around, and this begins his unfortunate transformation.
The whole film is shot in a documentary style with shaky cam shots throughout. And I think that approach worked for the most part. Even the special effects shots appear grainy and very realistic.
Sharlto Copely was the biggest bright spot in the production for me. I think he did an amazing job as Wikus making him a sympathetic hero that you could root for. The fact that he had no real professional acting experience prior to this film just blows my mind. For the duration of this film, Wikus is the everyman and I went willingly along with the ride.
Where it fell down a bit for me was the special effects. There only seemed to be a few different alien weapon styles in the film used extensively after Wikus began to change. The lightning gun that makes targets explode into chunks of meat became overly used in the final battle of the film. And I know my wife and I were getting a little tired of fleshy bits hitting the camera here and there as we got to the end.
And the prawns themselves, though cool at first, quickly got old. There were a few scenes where you saw a prawn beat the snot out of a human or rip a head or limb off during a fight. And that’s ok once for shock value, but after that it loses its effectiveness.
The plot itself and character development was quite good I felt, though a bit predictable once we saw Wikus begin to change. Merging the poor living conditions of parts of South Africa and the effects of an Apartheid-type approach to racial control was very effective. It’s hard to see anyone living in that type of squalor, even if they were fictional aliens. And bringing in the private military force more interested in weapons research than helping those in their charge has definite echoes of today with companies like Blackwater in Iraq making things less secure over time.
It’s worth watching. I think the fact that they made as amazing a science fiction film as they did with such a little budget goes to prove that it can be done. And I hope that the inevitable sequel holds up as well as this movie. Only time will tell. In the meantime, check out District 9 for another dose of good science fiction at the box office!
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