An alien movie set in South Africa shot partly in a faux-documentary style.
Aliens. We’ve had cute ones. We’ve had nasty bastards with great big pointy teeth. We’ve had stupid ones, smart ones, ones that look like Jeff Bridges, and ones that eat bridges for breakfast.
In fact, we’ve had so many of the extra-terrestrial buggers that putting a fresh spin on the movie alien is clearly a tricky thing. But, as newcomer and Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp proves with District 9, it’s not impossible — even if, on closer inspection, there’s nothing really original about the movie’s components. Hero metamorphosing into something more than human? Why, hello there, The Fly. Human with trenchant anti-ET attitudes forced to partner up with alien, discovering — hey! — his true humanity along the way? Nice to meet you, Alien Nation. And the end battle, with an insane mecha-suit wreaking havoc, is a throwback to RoboCop. And there’s more — throughout, Blomkamp, a self-confessed sci-fi sponge, studs at least a dozen other references to classic sci-fi flicks, including Jackson’s own no-budget debut, Bad Taste.
Happily, though, District 9 manages to become more than just a nudge-nudge wink-wink tribute package. It’s a genuinely exciting and surprisingly affecting thriller that, thanks to Blomkamp’s stylistic device of choice — a faux-documentary, with plenty of Paul Greengrass-esque shakycam — feels fresh and original, with the outlandish action rooted in a grimy reality. The astonishing, state-of-the-art effects aren’t dwelled upon or drooled over. They’re just there, enhancing the feeling that this isn’t just a fantastical sci-fi pic. This is real. This is happening.
It’s a striking approach that Blomkamp (a 29 year-old South African who was taken under Jackson’s wing for the painful, aborted adaptation of the hit video-game, Halo) adopted for his 2006 short film, Alive In Joburg, which serves as an appetiser to District 9’s main course.
Like District 9, Alive In Joburg addressed the problems faced by genuine illegal aliens, stranded in a city and a country whose track record on tolerance is, shall we say, questionable. But this is not just a comment on apartheid (to wit: it’s wrong); District 9 has more pressing matters on its mind, not least the savage treatment meted out to Zimbabwean refugees by indigenous black citizens. As we see the aliens exploited, abused and treated like pieces of meat by a corrupt government, it’s clear that they operate as allegory, albeit one so thinly veiled it might as well be wrapped in cling film.
Thankfully, District 9 is not built upon a rickety old soapbox. Instead, it works primarily as a fun thriller, peopled — or aliened — by some of the best (and strangest) extra-terrestrials this side of E. T. Eschewing the guy-in-a-suit approach, Blomkamp plumps for aliens that truly define the word: non-humanoid, multi-limbed clicking monstrosities, derogatorily referred to as “prawns”, that can leap small buildings in a single bound, rip a man’s head off in a heartbeat and interact seamlessly with humans, their jittery body language strangely, beguilingly, human. The digital work on display here (bearing the imprint of Blomkamp, an effects whizz who started out as something of a wunderkind) is magnificent, and consistently photo-real. The cost? Believe it or not, just $30 million. Michael Bay has dreams that cost more than $30 million.
But it’s a human effect that’s the film’s strongest asset. As Wikus, a largely decent, if slightly insulated man bewildered when the system to which he’d dedicated his life suddenly turns on him, Sharlto Copley is nothing short of astonishing, particularly when you consider that he’s a first-time actor (in fact, he’s a producer and FX guy who gave Blomkamp his first job, 14 years ago), and that all of his dialogue was improvised, as if Mike Leigh had wandered in and started directing a sci-fi movie.
Despite this, Copley ably depicts Wikus’ transformation from cold, blind bureaucrat, enthusiastically revelling in the popping noises made by alien eggs as they’re aborted by fire, to noble and embattled freedom fighter, as his body fuses with alien DNA. Treated like an object by MNU, the corrupt agency he worked for, most affectingly in a sequence where a dazed Wikus is forced to operate alien weaponry and blow away some prawns, he unwittingly becomes a, if you will, Mandela-like figurehead for the neglected alien hordes. Although Mandela never sprouted an alien claw where his left hand should be and never, to the best of our knowledge, developed the ability to don an alien exoskeleton that would make Iron Man cream his armour in envy.
Refreshingly, Blomkamp shies away from the easy, traditional path of the reluctant hero — for most of the movie, Wikus’ motives are powered by blind panic and a selfish desire to become human again. Even when he teams up with an alien partner, the amusingly named Christopher Johnson, and mounts a staggeringly staged, extraordinarily violent assault on MNU HQ in order to retrieve the MacGuffin, he’s never given an iconic one-liner or heroic money shot. This is a truly different hero, even if it does take a little time to root for a man who sounds like he’d be happier yelling, “Diplomatic immunity!” at Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
The action in this extended sequence is absolutely stunning, with electrical blasts splattering villains all over the camera lens, while cars flip through the air and Wikus lays everything to waste with that nifty mecha-suit. As the stormy mayhem escalates impressively, it immediately becomes apparent why Jackson took Blomkamp under his wing.
But, just as Bad Taste was hugely enjoyable but flawed, so too is District 9. The whole thing moves at such a cracking pace that the many gaping plot-holes pass unnoticed amid the Sturm und Drang, until they pop unbidden into your head several hours later and, like the aliens themselves, just won’t leave.
Perhaps inevitably, because the action takes us into areas where a news team would fear to tread, the illusion that the movie is a documentary is suddenly dropped around the 25-minute mark, before being arbitrarily reintroduced at odd intervals. It’s an often jarring effect that removes us from the on-screen action.
And while Copley may be top-notch, that doesn’t go for the rest of the cast, with some particularly wooden turns on the menu, particularly from the snarling, one-note bad guys, including an MNU soldier who looks like a bald, fat Jason Isaacs, and a perma-sneer Nigerian criminal overlord who rules over District 9 and, surprisingly for a movie that’s all about tolerance and debunking stereotypes, has a rather dodgy obsession with voodoo. They’re panto villains, the type of bad guys you love to cheer when the inevitable squishing happens, but for a movie that has strived so hard for realism throughout, they’re perhaps a tad too cartoonish.
But when District 9 works, it’s an explosive and exciting sci-fi that heralds the arrival of a major new talent. Considering where Jackson has ended up, it’s hard not to get excited about where Blomkamp will be in five years’ time.
Blomkamps prawn cocktail has more than enough stylistic chutzpah and originality to make District 9 an essential date.