District 9 is an ambitious film. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, insightful in its messages and tense in its action, successfully delivering a wonderful, unique, and thought provoking experience guaranteed to stay with you for months after. Though not perfect, District 9 is the breath of fresh air this summer of disappointing blockbusters needed.
Back in 1982, a strange ship came to Earth, hovering over the land of Johannesburg, South Africa. After three long months, the ship was cut into and an innumerable amount of aliens were found inside. The creatures were forced into quarantine, living in refugee camps dubbed "District 9." Twenty-eight years later, the aliens are still there and control over their welfare has been handed over to the MNU Alien Civil Affairs, who plan on moving them to a different location and have begun to evict them from their makeshift homes. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is the head of the MNU and while in District 9 overseeing the removal of the aliens, he is sprayed by a mysterious canister housing a strange liquid, which begins to mutate him into one of the creatures. Wanting to study him, MNU seizes him, but he breaks free and joins up with a resident alien creature who promises to fix him if he helps him get back home.
District 9 is a film about racism, refugees and the camps they live in. It takes a science fiction story and draws many parallels to real life, criticizing why we do or do not attempt to help others. Refugee camps are supposed to be temporary places to live, helping its inhabitants get through a rough time, such as a war, but many are dirty and inhospitable, working more like a prison than anything else, keeping a large number of people in a small area of land. In the movie, the MNU claims that they want to move the aliens for humanitarian reasons, but it is explained that their real motivation was to find alien weaponry and figure out how to use them, which would bank them lots of money in the process.
The movie makes the claim that there is always an outside motivation, which is why many terrible refugee camps still exist today. Why hasn't America helped Darfur and the millions of people housed in refugee camps over there? There's not enough to benefit us. Why assist a refugee camp if you can't get anything back in return? De Merwe, the head of the MNU, supports this idea at one point in the movie. After finding a huge stash of weapons, he excitedly says, "This is Christmas. This is the biggest find I've ever seen," effectively securing that he cares not about the well being of these living creatures, but is motivated instead by money.
District 9 also explores intolerance and hatred, showing how some people see others as a lower form of life, unimportant when compared to themselves and others like them. The people of Johannesburg have begun to hate the aliens, including the MNU who are supposed to protect them. Early in the movie, De Merwe pulls tubes out of an unborn fetus killing it instantly, only to snicker and hand the remains off to a co-worker, telling him to keep it as a souvenir as a reminder of his "first abortion." After he begins to mutate and work alongside another alien, of which has a child, the little one says to him, "We are the same," to which he angrily replies, "We aren't the same!" He's not so much afraid of the changes taking place, but rather that he is becoming something he has spent the last few decades hating.
That's not to say that the whole thing is one giant sermon. Take away the social messages and you still have a riveting, tense movie sporting a truly epic story with a perfect conclusion guaranteed to give you goosebumps. This is a special film, wonderfully rounded out, with great care taken to every aspect of its design. Made with a modest budget of around 30 million dollars, the movie looks absolutely beautiful, with special effects that seamlessly integrate themselves into the real world to a dazzling effect. Combine this with the terrific direction from Neill Blomkamp in his feature directorial debut and you have a visually pleasing movie that showcases the combined efforts of the tremendous skill at hand.
If District 9 stumbles on anything, it is its drastic switch in style. The film begins as a mockumentary, telling a fake story through the conventions of a documentary, complete with historical information and testimonies. Through this style, it explains how the aliens came to Earth and gives some back story on De Merwe, complete with a camera crew following him around during his time in District 9 serving the aliens their eviction notices, but it disappointingly abandons this method fairly early on, only briefly resurrecting it near the end.
Although vital to the story, there are scenes with just the aliens that are not shot, or intended to look like a documentary. Other scenes have Neill on the run after he begins his transformation, but he doesn't address the camera as he does earlier in the movie because there is nobody there with him. This type of footage would be impossible to have short of recreations. Once the movie drops the documentary style angle, one starts to wonder why they went that way to begin with. It's a radical detachment from the previously established tone of the film, though only a minor flaw when surrounded by an otherwise brilliant film.
For District 9 to work, it had to be done with unknowns and it rightfully is. It's a groundbreaking tale that desperately needed authenticity and by using unknown actors, who all give outstanding performances, the movie works exceedingly well, to the point where you forget you're watching a movie and begin to really invest in what is happening onscreen. Unfortunately, it starts to drift away from the message as it goes on, devolving into yet another action flick. Nevertheless, it's immensely entertaining and you likely won't care once you see the unrelenting carnage that unfolds. This is a superb first outing for director Neill Blomkamp and I can't wait to see his next film. If it's half as good as District 9, it will be well worth watching.
District 9 receives 4.5/5