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District 9 (2009)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 12/22/2009
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/22/2009
In the 1950s, alien invasion movies were everywhere. Films like The Thing from Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Quatermass Experiment, and even Plan 9 From Outer Space reflected the public's fear of communists attempting to take over America by replacing Russians with strange creatures from outer space. Since this heyday, we've continued to get the occasional alien invasion movie, be it the warm-hearted E.T. or the mis-guidedAliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Be they evil or friendly, cinematic extraterrestrial visitors have continued to come to Earth. The latest example of this genre is District 9.
District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1982, a gigantic alien spaceship appeared over the city and for three weeks, nothing happened. Finally, government officials boarded the ship to find that it held 1 million alien creatures who were sickly and could not move their ship. The aliens, which are known as "prawns", were brought to Earth and placed in a shantee-town called District 9. The government and a private company called United Multi-National (UMN) made provisions to keep the aliens away from humans and vice-versa. Despite this, gangs made their way into the camp to exploit the aliens by selling them things at inflated prices. UMN was interested in the alien weaponry, which can only be fired by the aliens. The main story takes place in the present. A new refugee camp has been built for the aliens, so they must be notified of this. UMN worker Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been placed in charge of this endeavor. He and a team of soldiers go door-to-door in District 9, giving eviction notices to the aliens. While investigating a suspicious shack, Wikus finds a canister which sprays a black liquid in his face. This seemingly small incident will lead Wikus down a path where he will be forced to understand the alien's plight and see the corrupt nature of UMN.
Director Neil Blomkamp is living every young filmmakers dream. After making a short entitled Alive in Joburg, Academy Award winning director secured $30 million in financing for Blomkamp to make a feature-film version of the short. This is a fantastic, once in a lifetime opportunity. If only he'd made a better movie.
I always try to say something nice about the movies which I review, and I'll do that here, but first we'll discuss the problems with District 9. The film can't decide what style it wants to use. The first few minutes of the movie make it feels as if this is going to be a faux-documentary, as we are treated to stock news footage, security camera footage, and on-camera interviews with characters and "by standers". However, once Wikus and his crew get to District 9, there is suddenly standard narrative film shots. (The aliens wouldn't be filming themselves.) Following this, the movie becomes a mixture of standard movie shots and "found footage". The movie worked much better as a documentary (as it was advertised) and the blending of the two styles simply doesn't work. The movie also doesn't do itself any favors by having such a vague story. For a faux-documentary, there sure are a lot of forgotten details. We learn very little about the aliens, or how UMN got involved. The movie opens by detailing the alien's arrival and then skips 20 years of history. The story has been praised for being original, but it's simply Alien Nation combined with any movie about Apartheid. The film's biggest problem is Wikus, a truly unlikable character. At the outset, he's mean to be unlikable, as he's a racist blowhard who sees his job as a big deal. But, as the movie progresses, Wikus should make an arc where he becomes more likeable...but he doesn't. Is it brave of the movie to reject this stereotype? Sure, but it also makes a questionable film even more difficult to enjoy.
Now for the film's few pros. The special effects, courtesy of Peter Jackson's company, are seamless and very impressive. The shots of the mother ship sitting over the city look very realistic and lend the movie an air of believability. The aliens look great as well, and it's nice that each one has a distinct look. The finale contains some very well-done action scenes, but it's too little, too late. (I can only assume that some audiences came away from the movie remembering only the buddy-cop movie that District 9 suddenly becomes and forgetting about the film's problems.)
Blomkamp grew up in South Africa and using aliens as a way to tell a story about racism is very creative. (The film has nice touches, such as the fact that humans can understand the aliens, but refuse to speak their language.) And while the movie has a nice look, the story gets very muddled and the main character remains a twit throughout the film. District 9 certainly didn't live up to the hype and hopefully Blomkamp's next project will have a more solid script.
District 9 craves cat food on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. Most faux-documentaries go for a faux grainy look, but not District 9. The image here is incredibly sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The sharpness of the picture lends it a notable amount of depth, especially the skyline shots. The picture is also nicely detailed. The colors look good and bold colors really stand out against the often plain backgrounds. The image is never overly dark or bright. The Disc holds a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Just like the visuals, the audio is a treat as well. The stereo effects are nicely done and very detailed, showing good separation. The surround sound effects are nearly constant and give a sense of space to the film. The finale provides a multitude of impressive subwoofer effects. Overall, a great technical package.
The District 9 Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Neil Blomkamp. "Joburg From Above" is an interactive map which allows the viewer to get detailed information on various locations from the from the film, such as MNU headquarters, District 9, and the alien ship. The Disc contains twenty-two DELETED SCENES, which run about 23 minutes. The first part of this series of scenes contains very simple scenes which show humans talking about the behavior of the aliens and how they interact with them. We also see another MNU team (not Wikus) doing eviction. Then, we get a group of scenes showing Wikus doing his evictions. The most interesting element here is a short "educational film" which shows how the aliens reproduce. "The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log" (34 minutes) is a three-part documentary which examines the making of the film. Starting from the beginning of the project, the piece explores how the project came together (including Peter Jackson's involvment), pre-production, the actual shooting of the film (including stunts and practical effects), viusal effects and editing. The documentary contains a nice amount of on-set footage and many comments from the cast and filmmakers. "Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus" (10 minutes) shows actor Sharlto Copley undergoing the special effects makeup which depicts his change. "Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9" (12 minutes) delivers on-set footage showing Blomkamp laying the groundwork for each scene and having the actors take it from there. "Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9" (13 minutes) examines the set design and locations used in the movie. We get some concept art and see the sets being constructed. "Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9" (10 minutes) looks at how the aliens were created for the movie. The real drawback here is that the short film which inspired District 9, entitled Alive in Joburg, is nowhere to be found in the extras.
Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long