If someone had told me that I would be most impressed this year by a film made by a South African first-timer funded by a Kiwi eccentric genius (Peter Jackson) I would have expressed some skepticism. Discovering gems like District 9 make the pain of watching other cinematic garbage a little more bearable.
Beginning with the grinning visage of one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) District 9 tells the fascinatingly believable tale of a world in which the aliens have already landed. More to the point, they found themselves stranded in a stalled spaceship hovering over Johannesburg in South Africa, two decades ago. Instead of reexamining the 'what if aliens landed on Earth' scenario seen countless times before in other movies, this film focuses on what the human race would do to the aliens if they did make it to our planet.
Unlike other movies where our kind manage to not only communicate with the other-worldly visitors but also engage them in battle and win by figuring out simplistic ways to circumvent their technology (that ridiculous scene from Independence Day comes to mind), this movie shows the more plausible stand-off between the two races.
The humans call the aliens 'prawns' and insist that they be segregated. As a result of twenty years of persecution, the aliens are huddled together in a slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg that gives this movie its name. Like most slums, the living conditions are atrocious, and the aliens have to find a balance between constant harassment by the authorities and persecution by Nigerian gangs.
Wikus works for Multi-National United (MNU), a company that has been contracted to arrange the eviction of the aliens who reside in District 9. MNU also happens to be the world's second largest weapons manufacturer and the only reason they continue to have an interest in the aliens is because of the huge cache of alien weaponry discovered aboard their spaceship. The humans haven't been able to operate any of those weapons because they could only be activated by alien DNA.
Toss in some voodoo, cat food, a mysterious black liquid and a resourceful alien who makes a momentous discovery on the day that Wikus leads the troops to issue eviction notices to the residents of District 9, and all hell breaks loose.
This is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed. There is very little about the storytelling that seems familiar, right from the accents of the human characters to the look and feel of the city; from the slums to the insides of the alien spaceships.
The film may revel in its special effects and stylizations but above and beyond all that it tells a stunningly compelling story. The way the characters evolve and the way people's allegiances and betrayals are revealed, this movie feels almost Hitchcockian in design.
I can't think of one motion picture character I have watched this year who goes through a more dramatic personal transformation than Wikus. The man who plays the lead role isn't even a professional actor. He deserves an Oscar nomination for that reason alone and it is an added bonus that he remains so thoroughly watchable throughout the movie. Right from that first moment when he fumblingly wears a microphone and draws us into the story it is very rewarding to watch this weasel-like brown-noser grow a spine and learn to feel for those different from himself.
Copley is by no means the only pitch-perfect thing about this movie. The sound design, the cinematography, the dramatic arcs as well as the sudden, sharp bursts of violence all unify under an auterist vision that has become harder to find onscreen in this age of studio interference and filmmaking by committee.
The auteur in question is one Neill Blomkamp. Memorise the name and learn how to say it right. Very rarely does a first-time feature film director come along who is so fully formed that his first motion picture looks like the work of a veteran. This is not to say that Mr Blomkamp is some wet-behind-his-ears newbie who stepped off a college campus (or was born into a famous film family) and made a stunning film.
No, Mr Blomkamp has been living with the universe he so vividly realises in District 9 for some time now. First through having spent his formative years in apartheid-era South Africa, and later through the short films he made that inserted science fiction elements into present-day Johannesburg.
Be warned, District 9 is not an easy movie to watch. The aliens are not cute and the issues the movie raises -- about prejudice, discrimination and exploitation -- are not the stuff of easy weekend viewing. That being said, this is a movie every film fan should watch because of how rich it is in texture, subtext and emotion. I couldn't help feeling like I was witnessing a cinematic 'event' while this movie was unfolding on screen. In fact I suspect that there will be further pleasures in watching this movie a second time. Word to the wise though -- go easy on the junk food before you watch this, because there are scenes in there that will severely test your gag reflex.
Go for the explosions and the gun play, stay for the message that reminds us, without ever being heavy-handed, that we could all stand to practice a little more understanding in our lives. If you're planning to spend money on a movie this week, make it District 9. I cannot recommend it enough.