Released under the aegis of Peter Jackson’s production banner WingNut Films, District 9 is the debut feature from commercials wunderkind Neill Blomkamp. If alarm bells start ringing at this point be reassured that, evidenced from this work, Blomkamp looks to be anything but another McG-esque clone whose entire film grammar is borne of the empty gloss of the MTV generation.
Although the ‘aliens among us’ idea has been well trodden before in film and TV productions such as V and Alien Nation, this one does have an altogether fresh spin. A loose pseudo-documentary format adds immediacy to the proceedings, as talking heads efficiently whiz through some initial exposition, including the familiar image of a huge disc-shaped craft hovering over a cityscape. The stroke of genius is the choice of city at which first contact occurred some twenty years ago; ET didn’t touch down in a slick Metropolis or throne of world power, but instead their spaceship ground to a halt over Johannesburg, South Africa.
And so two decades later, with a city now rife with cockroach-like refugees (realised by Jackson’s Weta facility) universally hated by the indigenous human population, the decision is made to evict the derogatively labelled ‘prawns’ and contain them within a de facto concentration camp. The main protagonist Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is charged with executing the plan, and in the process of clearing the alien shantytown falls victim to a fate not dissimilar to that of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Loaded with glaring parallels of the apartheid and xenophobia of which South Africa is so sadly associated, District 9 could have easily taken a misstep into over-egged allegory. But, although it’s an ever-present and obvious irony running throughout the film, writer/director Blomkamp offsets these themes with black humour and body horror reminiscent of some of Peter Jackson’s early work. Some truly squeamish moments of appendages dropping off or blowing apart a la Starship Troopers will have you wincing in your seat, and possibly giggling with glee.
It’s a genuinely impressive debut feature and unlike the singular experience of Cloverfield’s faux-reality, District 9 has narrative, plus thematic weight and visceral thrills, which elevate it above the gimmick of the reality format.
Stars Sharlto Copley, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike
Director Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Distributor Sony Pictures
Running Time 1hr 53mins
Opens September 4