A low budget indie from South African, produced by a New Zealander known for his high-budget antics, District 9 was the under-the-radar hit of 2009. Now it’s arrived on Blu-ray, and it seems to have lost none of its off-beat charms along the way.
For the past 25 years a large spaceship has hovered ominously over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Arriving unheralded, in the first few months after the ship’s appearance the government simply watched and waited for something to happen, nervous of the idea of ‘first contact’ with an unknown alien species. Then they hacked their way in to the ship to discover a collection of malnourished, disease-ridden insect-like life forms huddled in fear deep within its bowels. These creatures were rounded up and placed in a large area on the borders of the city as the government of Johannesburg figured out what to do next. And there they have stayed ever since, living in abject squalor and poverty, their shantytown home known to all as ‘District 9’.
Fast forward to 2008, and Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is an eager young bureaucrat working for MNU, a private company charged with the task of moving the alien population of District 9 to a more ‘habitable’ camp some miles outside of Johannesburg. Relations between humans and aliens have been degenerating steadily for a quarter of a century; distrust, disgust and ignorance stirring the already heavily churning melting pot of these new slums. The aliens don’t help themselves, of course. These are no Avatar-esque, misunderstood enlightened beings. They are intergalactic scum of the earth, trading in prostitution, mixing with Nigerian gangs, and obsessing over cat food, to which they have developed an addiction comparable to a human crack habit.
Wikus, a largely unremarkable man keen to please his father-in-law who is a high ranking MNU officer, is placed in charge of clearing the slums ready for the move. The movie opens with us following him through the corrugated iron shacks and asbestos huts, blindly filling out forms and mistreating the alien populace, or ‘prawns’ as they a pejoratively called. While clearing one such hovel, Wikus is comes into contact with a mysterious biological liquid, which slowly starts to change his physiology.
His body changing fast, Wikus suddenly goes from hunter to hunted as it becomes apparent that he is the first human to possess the ability to operate extremely sophisticated prawn weaponry, making him a valuable commodity to both his government and MNU, as well as a source of great interest to the human gangs inhabiting and exploiting District 9.
On the surface a straight forward sci-fi action flick, ‘District 9’ is an incredibly complex film. It’s primarily a journey of change for its central character, as Wikus learns the truth about these weird intergalactic creatures, and the implications of their mistreatment by himself and the rest of his race. But it’s also a comment on racial tensions in the real world, with particular reference to apartheid South Africa and the development of race relations in that country since apartheid ended. There are also other parallels, with references to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews (the new ‘home’ for the prawns is eventually referred to by Wikus as “a concentration camp, really”), the prevalence of gang culture and the unchecked power of large, private corporate organisations.
Where this film is at its most powerful, though, is on the simplest level. It’s an original, exciting, interesting story told superbly via the medium of both cinematic and pseudo-documentary styles. The idea of setting an alien-based movie in a run down, backward, technologically and socially deprived area of the world works very well. Images of run down townships full of filth and depravity inhabited by large, gangly insectoid life-forms who build disgusting egg nests inside ramshackle huts are simultaneously at odds with each other and in stark, shocking contrast. Add to that the beautifully underplayed, semi-improvised performances from Copley and the rest of the cast, and you get a startlingly original, grimy, gritty, realistic piece of political sci-fi.
There’s not many movies can be described in that way and be deemed a huge success creatively, but District 9 is certainly one of them.
Grimy, slimy and dirty, District 9 is quite the visual feast. On the audio commentary, director Neill Blomkamp makes much of his efforts to combine the fantastical with the mundane, and it really works. The best example of this when we see the aliens making use of their rather awesome array of advanced weaponry within the confines of the township, or when Wikus discovers a cache of prawn eggs being artificially sustained through complicated advanced technology incorporating an awful lot of tubes and a dead cow.
It’s this dirtiness that really comes across well in the transfer. Brought to us in 1080p, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and shot originally on the ever impressive RED camera system, District 9 is about as good as your going to see on Blu-ray to date. The dust, dirt, slime and sludge of the alien township practically leaps from the screen, with great textures and very little evidence of shimmering or banding. The colour scheme is surprisingly rich and diverse and the blacks are clean as a whistle.
Obviously a key aspect of the film is its special effects. Generally, these are superbly executed, with seamless integration into the live action footage. A very slight, miniscule, teeny gripe might be that the ‘prawns’ don’t always quite seem to match their surroundings in terms of how they’ve been lit, causing them to stand out a little occasionally. But this is really a very minor problem in an otherwise top grade transfer.
The world of District 9 offers a great chance for some serious audio action and the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack doesn’t fail to deliver. The lucky listener’s lugholes are treated to a real 3D audio environment, with the 5.1 mix executed to near perfection.
With some great effects provided on a rather minimal budget (the aliens’ clicky-whistley guttural voices being a highlight) and an exciting score by Clinton Shorter, District 9 rumbles home with the best set of vibrations I’ve heard in quite some time.
Stuffed to the gills. Absolutely stuffed. Plenty of gubbins on here to keep even the most rampant appetite for extras firmly sated. There’s an in-depth director’s commentary from Blomkamp, a good selection of deleted scenes, a very large slice of behind the scenes making-of style documentary goodness and the silly as ever BD-Live and MovieIQ functionality.
Conspicuous by its absence, however, is the film which inspired producer Peter Jackson to make ‘District 9’ in the first place – Blomkamp’s ‘Alive In Joburg’. A documentary about ‘District 9’, made as a short and the chief inspiration for the full length feature, apparently it’s a superb piece of work, but we wouldn’t know because it’s not on here. Seems like a bit of a glaring omission to me, but there you go.
If I’m totally honest, I had no real preconceptions about this film. Blomkamp is a first time director, so I guess I was surprised at its sheer thematic depth, but then with Peter Jackson behind him you’d expect a certain scale to creep in. Other than that, I think I can honestly say that I was feeling reasonably open minded when I slid this disc into my BR player for the first time. I hadn’t caught this film at the cinema, so the BR release was my first viewing. I think what has impressed me most about District 9 is the freshness and originality of its format and how it maintains that clever balance between pseudo-documentary and cinematic feature. I love anything that employs a slightly ‘from the hip’ approach to its acting, too, and the semi-improvised performances at the heart of District 9 really hit home for me.
So, overall, a fresh, original take on sci-fi, and a hugely impressive debut from a first-time director.
Verdict: 4/5 – “BUY”