Review: “District 9”

While the Soweto setting powers the metaphor along with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it also adds an exotic and unique flavor to one of the most engaging mainstream films of the summer. “District 9” delivers an adult sci-fi tale that provides blockbuster action thrills, occasionally witty social commentary, a solid raft of performances from almost all unknowns, impressive effects and the production values of a film around three times that of its mere $30 million budget.

Fusing familiar elements from various disparate genres, the story is original and smart enough for the art house crowd while still providing plenty of inventive gore, explosive action and familiar thrills to satisfy moviegoers with more visceral demands. Director Neill Blomkamp, making his feature film debut, displays deft visual control and an abundance of maverick energy that’s refreshing, even on the few occasions when his overly ambitious reach exceeds a still remarkable grasp.

The film’s three acts are quite distinct but appealing in their own separate ways. The initial half-hour delivers an effective pseudo-documentary take on the arrival of the alien refugees, their failure to integrate, the emergence of the D9 slum, and the attempt to relocate that growing population away from human civilization. This section smoothly cuts between interview sound bites, news footage, and fly-on-the-wall docudrama following the somewhat hapless bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who has been saddled with the task of heading up efforts to remove the creatures from the titular slum.

While it takes the events it portrays with utter seriousness, it’s here the satire shines strongest. Though apartheid is never mentioned or shown on screen, the alien immigrant parallel is driven home in ways both obvious and surprising. Some seem far too blunt, such as the use of the derogatory ‘prawns’ nickname and the Jo’burg setting which still today remains visibly scarred by the National Party’s five-decade long segregationist policies. Others however are much more fascinating and thought-provoking, mainly in the way it deals with humanity’s predictable reactions to such a problem from black market racketeers and inter-species prostitution to socially acceptable racism and sanctioned urban warfare.

The other two acts slip into more conventional models, Blomkamp gradually phasing out the doco elements for a more traditional and somewhat less interesting narrative. The mid-point of the film is the weakest, a gory “The Fugitive” knock-off with pacing that drags for long periods before rousing itself to an explosive action-packed third act filled with cross-city chases, an armored mecha robot battle, human and alien bodies literally exploding in shoot outs, and some fun action including my favourite – a blink and you’ll miss it death by flying pig carcass.

The main issue here is an obvious lack of final polish. The subtext is too spread out and dissonant to come together and make a conclusive overall point. The setup is so ambitious and audacious that the falling back on more conventional sci-fi trappings such as a cute kid alien, a convenient macguffin that will resolve most issues (in this case a black liquid power source), and a human/alien friendship that overcomes prejudice is disappointing. While Wikus himself is fully fleshed out, all the other human characters are purely cartoonish in their villainy or simply talking heads for the interview segments. Though it comes to a satisfying ending, there’s a few notable holes left unexplained in the otherwise tight story.

Though the flaws stop this from reaching the great heights of the genre, what’s here is nevertheless quite exceptional in many ways and will certainly become a major cult hit. Performances from a range of New Zealand and South African actors are solid across the board, particularly filmmaker-turned-actor Copley who delivers strong work in a physically demanding and often unlikable protagonist role.

Production values are remarkable, the CG is often astonishingly well integrated with Trent Opaloch’s cinematography which effectively conveys an on-location improvised style for sequences that would had to have been planned down to the last detail. Blomkamp, helped along by Clinton Shorter’s effective score, keeps the pacing tight with only that aforementioned sag in the middle slowing down events from moving along at an otherwise quite punchy speed.

More than anyone else, Blomkamp is the one that comes out of this as a talent to watch – nimble, fresh, inventive and full of the energy of most young first-time filmmakers and yet already displaying the artistic skill of many of the greats. Only the odd moment of over-indulgence takes away from an otherwise remarkable level of self-control and proficiency. With “District 9” he’s created an engaging sci-fi parable rooted in both universal themes and a specific setting that often takes you by surprise with both its smarts and intensity, something you don’t see often in this kind of cinema these days.