District 9 reviewed

It’s amusing that the film which most successfully captures the tone of contemporary South Africa is not a sombre drama with a highbrow mentality and endless swirling shots of a parched African landscape. Rather, it’s a gritty science fiction flick shot in a jerky handheld style, and filmed predominantly in the slums of Johannesburg.

No doubt many South Africans will be drawn into cinemas to watch District 9, curious about this “local” film’s phenomenal international success, both critically and commercially. They may be surprised by what they find – a dark, cynical and frequently violent genre blender that more often than not caters to the tastes of geeky filmgoers than the squeamish masses.

Written and directed by Canada-based South African Neill Blomkamp, and filmed with a predominantly South African cast and crew, District 9 can essentially be divided into 3 parts as its story unfolds.

The film’s basic premise is that in the early 1980s a massive alien spacecraft breaks down above the city of Johannesburg. The emaciated inhabitants – disparagingly referred to as “prawns” – are relocated to a fenced off camp which, 20 years later, has become a crime-ridden shantytown.

Desperate to get rid of this eyesore, as well as its pest-like inhabitants, private military contractor Multinational United (MNU) is hired to relocate the 1.8 million aliens by whatever means necessary to a new camp 240km away. Goofy, desperate to impress Wikus van de Merwe (played by unknown Sharlto Copley, whose outstanding performance carries the movie) is the MNU Field Operative put in charge of the mission – by his boss, and father-in-law no less. All goes well until an eviction turns nasty and Wikus’s exposure to alien technology transforms him into a wanted man.

Starting as a pitch black satire of social injustice, District 9 transitions into a horror film in the mould of The Fly before finally veering off into action movie territory with a “racial” odd couple team up (with sci-fi flavour of course) akin to Blood Diamond. Most interestingly the film does all this without sacrificing an iota of South African-ness. International viewers may not pick this up but District 9 continually highlights the distinctiveness of South African life. The filmmakers accomplish this through a clever use of local slang and profanity, costuming, depictions of everyday local customs and even the little props and knick-knacks that form part of the various set dressings. Even Wikus’s parents have the specific instantly recognisable look of white Afrikaans South Africans.

Needless to say there are many opportunities for South Africans to indulge in enjoyable self-recognition during District 9. This is especially true in the first 30 or so minutes of the movie, which are filmed in a realistic documentary style. The humans' treatment of the “prawns,” which is clearly modelled on the Apartheid government’s actions, as well as the local masses' recent xenophobic behaviour, is quite horrible – but it’s also difficult to stop laughing if your tastes in humour are cynical and politically incorrect. South Africans’ callous attitude to life, especially the life of the “Other”, hasn’t changed.

What is also enjoyable about District 9 is that despite its ambitious genre splicing the film doesn’t skimp on the “Coolness Factor” at all. A single short sequence involving an alien mech is far more exhilarating than anything in the entire 2 and half hour running time of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

The insect-like design of the “prawns” too is fantastic and a welcome change from the usual sleek sanitary “greys” that Hollywood so often portrays. Much praise must go to the digital artists and animators who have made these creatures repellent on the whole, but still imbue them with enough personality that the audience can actually care about the film’s chief prawn, Christopher Johnson (ridiculously named and classified by MNU), and his son.

District 9’s only real weakness is a handful of scenes where Wikus makes tearful phone calls to his wife, Tania (Vanessa Haywood). The inclusion of these scenes in the film is understandable. If they weren’t there, Wikus would come across as a cowardly wimp and “racist” with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However, despite the function of these scenes, they do still grind the film to a halt, and it isn’t long before the viewer grows impatient for this supposed emotional heart of District 9 to be ditched so the film’s momentum can pick up again.

This gripe aside, District 9 is ideal popcorn entertainment. It’s unlikely to make any major critics’ lists come awards season - this type of film never does - but this doesn’t mean you won’t have a fokken good time watching it at the cinema. District 9 is what a midyear blockbuster for adults should be – fun, action packed, uncensored and with enough substance that you don’t instantly forget it as soon as you leave the cinema.

Now if only the filmmakers wouldn’t spoil the movie’s legacy by making a pointless sequel, no doubt more generic, and less South African in flavour.


Anonymous said…
Nice review.
Excellent review!

I, however, liked the calls made to his wife. It added a "real" feature to him, and showed us his motivation. However, his wife's acting wasn't that good! Didn't like it.

In terms of sequels I'm sitting on a fence here. The movie is excellent just the way it is, however one can't deny that if Neill makes a sequel or two in the ranks of a Lord of Rings, Star Wars (4,5,6) and not The Matrix then this movie could possibly hit major cult status (well it already is I suppose). Peter Jackson is involved and he rocks. However, I hope, like you said, they don't make a sequel and it's a total lame Hollywood blockbuster with Shia Lebeouf (sp?). Keep the actors, keep South Africa.
Galen said…
I watched District 9 yesterday and was very pleasantly surprised! For the first 20 minutes or so you might think “What. The. F#*%” But after you get used to the SA accents and the story begins to develop it gets really intense!

They perhaps go a little overboard by saying “hey” and f0k” a lot. Why do they always make ‘South Africans’ say “hey” so much anyway? Hey? Like Leo D in Blood Diamond…

Anyway, it’s very well made for such a low budget film - definitely worth a watch. Don’t wait for it to come out on DVD, go watch the film on the big screen and show your support!

PS: I understand that Peter Jackson was going to make a Halo movie instead of District 9 but didn’t have the budget to do so. Thank goodness for that!

I look forward to the inevitable District 10 ;)
Anonymous said…
Hope it reaches provicial Italy!
Pfangirl said…
Hi everyone, thanks for your comments.

Niel, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of why I disliked the phone call scenes so much - the really bad acting! These scenes didn't have any interesting visual or thematic concepts to distract the audience from, or make them more accepting of the mediocre acting on the screen.

As for a sequel, given how the D9 ended, I imagine it would have to centre on an epic Man vs. Alien battle, and really that concept has been so overdone. What was great about D9 was how fresh and different it felt!

Galen, yes, District 9 is definitely a movie you want to see on the Big Screen. It really enhances the experience, and I doubt it will be the same at home on DVD. As for the South African dialogue used, it actually didn't bother me for a change. I could have done without the occasional "bru" but the many "heys" and "foks" didn't grate me at all. Maybe it was because the cast was South African instead of Americans trying to sound South African?

K, I hope all of Europe gets to see it too:) I think it's likely I'll end up seeing it again before its local cinema run ends.

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