District 9 – A Winning Debut

District 9 – A Winning Debut

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  1. Put together a director who has never directed a feature, a lead actor who has never acted in a feature, and a writer who has never had a feature script produced and you might think you would get a feature film that is mediocre at best.  Not so when that director is Neill Blomkamp, that actor is Sharlto Copely, and that writer is Terri Tatchell.  Bringing those three together allowed the amazing film District 9 to hit theaters and blow away audiences in 2009.  It certainly helps that they had Peter Jackson as a producer to guide the process, but having this many unknowns and being nominated for 4 Oscars (Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture) is extraordinarily impressive.  While the film isn’t technically an original film (it was an adaptation), it is adapted from Blomkamp’s short film titled "Alive In Joburg" so it is sort of an original.

    What is it about?

    The story is set in the present, but it is a different present than you know.  In District 9, an alien mothership has been hovering over Johannesburg in South Africa for about 20 years.  Back when it first arrived, a team of investigators broke into the ship to find malnourished aliens which people call "prawns" (it’s a derogative term).  They are forced to live in a place called District 9 that quickly becomes a slum, then essentially a military state.  The prawns are hated by the humans and cause a lot of problems for them, so the South African government hires a corporation named MNU to relocate over a million prawns to an internment camp further away from Johannesburg.

    Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is a nice, simple man that is put in charge of enforcing this relocation of prawns.  Doing this starts to make him very cold-hearted toward the prawns but he still isn’t as cold hearted as military leader Koobus (David James) who loves killing unruly prawns.  During one eviction and subsequent search of a prawn’s shack, Wikus finds a strange looking tube that, when he tampers with it, sprays him with a black fluid.  He tries to continue with his work but he begins to get sicker and sicker.  Once he finally goes to the hospital, he realizes that he is slowly turning into a prawn.

    His status as human-prawn hybrid makes Wikus very valuable to the government and to a gang of Nigerians because he is able to operate the alien weaponry that both the government and the Nigerians want control of.  Once the government decides that they are going to kill Wikus and use his body for research, he breaks out of the hospital and becomes a fugitive.  Out of necessity, Wikus hides in the shack of a prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) who realizes what is happening to Wikus and he knows it’s because of the strange tube… because that tube belonged to Christopher.  Wikus and Christopher team up because they can use that tube (which contains fuel) to get up to the mothership where Wikus can be cured and which can take Christopher and his child home.

    To get the tube, they must break into the highly secure MNU facility.  Then, they have to get the tube back to a smaller ship that is hidden beneath Christopher’s shack.  Once they get that ship operational, they have to connect it to the mothership.  They must do this all while trying to evade a highly trained tactical military force and the ultra-violent Nigerian gang… then they’re home free.  You’ll have to see the film to find out if they make it.

    Is it any good?

    District 9 is not only shockingly good for its extremely modest $30 million budget, but it is one of the best and most original films to hit theaters in many years.  This film does so many good things, but there is only time to talk about a few.  Most notably, the special effects are stunning.  The prawns look perfect and are integrated with the live actors flawlessly.  Also, when the alien weapons essentially make people explode, it is disgustingly real-looking.  The weapons themselves look rather silly, but that is forgivable when you take everything else that is great into account.  It’s not surprising that the effects are wonderful because Blomkamp comes from a visual effects background having done 3D Animation for TV shows such as "Stargate SG-1," "Smallville," and others.

    The second thing that stands out is the use of so many kinds of footage to tell the story.  Security cam footage, documentary-style footage, news footage, medical research-style footage, and more are all seamlessly integrated into the narrative of this film which gives it a very unique feel.  It starts out feeling like a documentary, but it shifts styles as it goes and becomes a very action packed narrative film.  There’s a reason it picked up a Best Editing nomination at the Oscars.

    Finally, Sharlto Copley rocks your world as Wikus in District 9.  He goes from simple, nice, realtively weak man that avoids confrontation to cold and heartless leader of the group that sends prawns to an internment camp.  Then, as he slowly becomes a prawn he hits a low point as victim but still treats the prawns as filthy animals.  That is, until he finds out Christopher can help him.  Then he is a little more accepting of prawns, but it’s out of selfishness.  He finally becomes Christopher’s friend and is willing to sacrifice himself for the race that he once hated.  This is a lot to ask of an actor emotionally but Copley does it flawlessly.  What’s even crazier is that his first acting credit on IMDB.com is for the short film that then led to the production of District 9.  Very impressive.

    In all of this, the film still has a chance to make some very relevant points about racism, xenophobia, greed, and more.  See this film; you won’t regret it!

    Nolan’s Grade:  A+

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