District 9 review

Contributor; Antwerp, Belgium
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District 9 review
If you're wondering why this review appeared so long after its initial release, it's because I live in that part of the world where this film just opened in theaters.

District 9 is without a doubt the media hype of 2009. Through clever internet marketing and by shrouding the film in a veil of mystery many have been eagerly anticipating the film for quite a while. It just opened in Belgian theaters and even though I didn't really expect all that much from it, it seems that marketing did its job well. Most obvious question is of course whether the hype was worth the wait.

When I first watched the District 9 trailer I immediately turned it off after spotting the alien creature. I'm not a big fan of spoiler-heavy trailers, but this particular one made me wonder why they would reveal this much, this plainly, so early on. It could only mean there would be more to the film than simple alien appeal. Luckily there was.

The premise of the film is quite interesting, featuring a shipload of aliens stranded on Earth. Rather than taking the typical "alien flick" road, these particular aliens get a pretty rough deal as they are shipped away to a slum district on the edge of Johannesburg, controlled by military forces. The slum develops as most slums would, proving a perfect breeding ground for crime, violence and even interspecies prostitution. This is all presented in a news-like/documentary fashion with short interviews and typical news station fragments in between.

Cool stuff, but that's about all there is to the film. Beyond the interesting premise it's still very much a typical blockbuster film, as the developing story quickly illustrates. It doesn't take long before the main character becomes infected with alien genes, turns into the prime target of an international concern and goes into hiding trying to save himself. Standard stuff.

Visually District 9 is something else though. The typical documentary visuals don't sound like too much of a graphical treat but seeing how tremendously believable the CG is integrated it becomes almost unsettling to watch. Alien movement is still a little shaky, but apart from that everything feels solid, real and actually "there". The action-filled ending is absolutely amazing, featuring lush mech designs and awesome firepower without ever only slightly resembling something coming from a gaming console.

CG is often applied in a manner where the camera follows a pretty slick and premeditated path to improve the blend of CG. It gives it a fake dimension which is difficult to ignore. District 9 takes the Cloverfield approach and cleverly builds on that. The only real downer is the alien design, which is quite uninspired and dull compared to the rest. The soundtrack is decent enough but is rather secondary. The only remarkable thing there is the alien language which comes off as quite developed and original. Nice little touch.

As the film progresses the premise is mostly forgotten and all that matters is action, explosions and alien gear. People expecting a more intelligent approach might be disappointed, I on the other hand wasn't expecting anything at all and felt that there wasn't much more to be done with the premise anyway. Throw in some comedic interludes at regular times and you have a pretty basic blockbuster outline, but presented in such a way that the experience is completely different.

I liked District 9. A lot. It's a blockbuster, but as blockbusters should be. Near perfect use of CG, superb mech designs and great action scenes. Some funny moments and a premise interesting enough to kick-start the whole thing. Add some popcorn and you're gone for a good 100 minutes of alien fun. Hollywood should take notice, it's pretty amazing what Blomkamp achieved with the relatively low budget (compared to regular blockbuster budgets that is).

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Neill BlomkampTerri TatchellSharlto CopleyJason CopeNathalie BolttSylvaine StrikeActionSci-FiThriller

More about District 9

fergus1948October 6, 2009 11:17 AM

This is a fair review and while I agree that the movie did degenerate into a bit of a blockbuster shoot-out towards the end, I must admit to being a bit surprised that you didn't allude to the fact that it is set in South Africa and that District 9 is a very obvious metaphor for the inequities of apartheid.

Isn't the whole film coloured by this fact and doesn't the resonance of the apartheid allusion give the film a depth of feeling it otherwise wouldn't have had?

My main criticism of the film would have been that Vikkas is portrayed as too much of a buffoon at the beginning and was thus less credible than he seemed later on.

(I also thought the aliens were great! Much more believable than jame cameron's blue Avatar muppets!)

pollenoidOctober 7, 2009 6:35 PM

The lack of any reference to the apartheid allegory of District 9 in the review is disturbing. Is it deliberate or an oversight? Even just a web search to "District Six" should indicate how jammed the movie is of references to South African politics. By just focusing on the sci-fi/action and "blockbuster" appeal of the movie, a big part of what it addresses is ignored (and the fact that it uses such a gung-ho, action format is in itself interesting). The viral marketing campaign and the association with Peter Jackson were two major factors influencing the success of the movie, as it is still a film starring previous nobodies by "that guy who was going to do Halo" and wasn't guaranteed to be a commercial success as well.

I find this review's point-of-view interesting, because as another review stated: "To some extent the movie is successful because it works on two levels: an international audience can enjoy it simply as a sci-fi thriller, while at the same time there is another layer of meaning, accessible only to those who share the filmmaker’s cultural and political frame of reference."

Full review, focusing on the other layer, here:

gOctober 7, 2009 10:10 PM

the reason why the apartheid stuff didnt do anything for me, as a non south african is because it just commented on the aliens as a distraction to black vs white conflict and didnt go anywhere from there.

the only reason i can see why so many white south africans are getting excited about this film is purely because of the safetyvalve of cinema enabling them to express their white middleclass guilt on a blog. no more no less.

like the review said. 'nice cgi done on a low budget 'sums it up.

Niels MatthijsOctober 8, 2009 3:19 AM

The reason for not focusing the Apartheid parallel is because to me it was nothing more than a parallel. The message might have been a bit stronger if the film was made by someone not coming from South-Africa, now it seemed like a logical parallel, but only used to fleshen out the premise of the film.

After that, absolutely nothing is done with it, so why be excited about it? The film is not so much about Apartheid as it is about the xenophobe nature of humanity and how this could translate in our contacts with extraterrestrial. By itself a somewhat ludicrous premise, so I simply took the film as a blockboster with a more interesting premise than most of its peers.

pollenoidOctober 8, 2009 4:30 AM

Thanks for the clarification, Onderhond, that's actually the paragraph I missed in the review, as I was interested to know why you didn't reference it at all. It's interesting that a film with so many overt political references, yet also (admittedly) in-jokes and nods to real-life events is reviewed only on its blockbuster merits, without any reference to the possible parallels - the fact that it can be done, I think, is a compliment to what Blomkamp achieved. And agreed, the xenophobia angle is also strong, especially given events in South Africa and globally.

Ard VijnOctober 8, 2009 9:25 AM

Director Blomkamp stated that the blockbuster approach was fully intentional. The short was meant as a riff on apartheid, but the full feature had to be as entertaining as possible. Especially since it was the first time someone trusted him with a budget this large.

He also said that if he was ever going to tackle apartheid head-on, he would use a far more serious film to do it.