August 13, 2009 - In truth, there is a downside to what we do here. In this online age of previews, reviews, trailers, clips, interviews, blogs and podcasts, we have traded the mystery of movies for the knowledge of their industry. Remember back to the pre-Web days, when trailers were merely 60-second edits of imagery and plot, when the darkness of a movie theater concealed the promise of some uncertain journey. This is how I saw District 9, having glimpsed nothing but a vague teaser trailer, having read no rumors, having scanned or examined or pondered not one single image. And whether this was the result of some poorly-executed marketing campaign or a brilliant strategy of secrecy, it was the best and most appropriate way to see it.
So let's begin at the ending, starting with that final paragraph, the general summary which renders our verdict with nary a spoiler to be found. Read on for more if you choose, or come back after having seen the movie fresh, so long as you see it at all:
District 9 is a remarkable work and a truly benchmark science fiction film. Offering an expert balance of narrative, character, sub-text, action, effects and performance, Neill Blomkamp's cinematic debut is the film that fans have been waiting years (or perhaps even decades) for. There is scale here, both grand and intimate. Its heroes are distinctive; it's setting unique. Its action is spectacular and its drama is equal parts heartfelt and terrifying. Most importantly, it feels new. There is a mind at work in Blomkamp and District 9 is that rare celebration of science fiction that will undoubtedly help define the genre for years to come.
When a derelict alien spacecraft drifts into the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, the world is stunned to find the remains of a dying alien population aboard. Brought down into a facility called District 9, the Prawns - as the humans refer to them - have had nearly 20 years to integrate into society, but racism and prejudice against the impoverished, shanty-town aliens steadily increases. The corporation MNU is developed to handle the human-alien relations and it is during an unprecedented attempt to relocate the more than one million alien residents that Wikus - little more than an Everyman pencil-pusher - is unwittingly made the key to the human's ability to utilize the aliens' DNA-encoded weaponry. On the run with an alien named Christopher Johnson, Wikus must find a way to make things right for both himself and the Prawns so that both species, alien and human alike, can return home.
District 9 is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg -- the short which got the attention of producer Peter Jackson and Blomkamp subsequently attached to the long-abandoned adaptation of Halo. Using the same documentary-style approach to the material, District 9 is incredibly grounded, making grand science fiction feel tremendously real. This is partly due to the fact that the special effects in the film are taken almost for granted. The massive alien ship hangs in the sky above the city like an afterthought, hazy and out of focus through the constantly shifting lens of the camera. The aliens - a triumph of computer animation and digital character work - feel fully a part of the universe, blurring the line between CG creations and human performers, the standout of which is Wikus himself, Sharlto Copley.
With no prior acting experience, Copley creates a wholly fascinating character. Just promoted by his father-in-law who runs MNU, Wikus wants nothing more than to get ahead, kissing ass and acting far more authoritative than his status allows. In fact, he's relatively unlikeable. He's a white-collar nobody, inconsequential to both the characters and the audience. And that Copley is able to transition Wikus into an increasingly sympathetic character as the film continues - still flawed, still evolving - is a testament to the actor's raw talent. Equally impressive is Wikus' growing bond with Christopher, demanding that Copley create a dynamic relationship with little more than thin air, a relationship without which the film simply doesn't work. We've seen this attempted before in Jackson's own films, with Gollum or King Kong, but never has it worked so well and to such emotional effect.
Needless to say, however, the genre requires some degree of action, and Blomkamp absolutely delivers. While District 9 begins as a character piece, exploring and growing this new alien-human world, the second half features some stunning action pieces. The alien weaponry which becomes such a driving force to the story is put on brilliant display with some disastrous effects to the human anatomy. This film definitely earns its R-rating once the fighting begins, and Blomkamp knows how to layer the film with bigger and bigger moments without completely disengaging from the reality he so successfully creates. For all the explosions, all the gore, all the lasers and giant, fully-equipped mech-suits, it all feels, oddly enough, completely authentic and totally plausible.
The best pieces of genre filmmaking - be they horror or sci-fi or fantasy - begin with an idea, some human and universal notion that audiences can take with them throughout the journey, either consciously or unconsciously. Sadly, this is so often lacking in most modern-day fare, and District 9 is almost wholly unique this year in combining fantastic action with thoughtful, narrative filmmaking. In the mainstream, there's no reason this film should exist. Set in South Africa, no big stars, sub-titled alien dialogue, unlikely heroes, an unpolished documentary approach… And yet, the film works so well because of not in spite of all of that.
But herein lies the rub. The trouble with giving this film the five stars we've elected to give it is simply that it elevates expectations; it drives people to know more, filling their cinematic bellies before the main course even begins. Know only that the movie is good, it is important, it is strongly made. Let words like "great" and "brilliant" and "genre-defining" linger after the credits have rolled. Go to the film as empty as you can, and believe us, you'll leave satisfied, and with the urge to book a return trip to District 9.