By Michael Walsh
What a thrill it must have been for Neill Blomkamp. The South African native was named director of the Peter Jackson-produced Halo film project back in 2007. Can a first feature film get more daunting? Unfortunately for Blomkamp, the project never happened. The Halo film was dead and according to Microsoft is still sitting on the shelves.
But as Jackson said himself, the day Halo died is the day District 9 was born. Jackson decided to give Blomkamp the directorial shot they owed him, and that shot turned out to be a feature length version of Blomkamp’s own short film Alive in Joburg.
In documentary-like fashion, District 9 follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a MNU bureaucrat assigned to evict and move the residing and stranded alien species to a new refugee camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. After being exposed to a less-than-desirable alien substance, Wilkus attempts to survive on the run from the very MNU agency he worked for as he tries to help the aliens flee from the planet.
All I have to say for the time being is forget Halo. Who needs a highly revered set of characters and stories when you have the pure genius and originality of Neill Blomkamp at the helm? District 9 is an extraordinary feature film debut for director/writer Blomkamp and the kind of science fiction film some filmmakers would dream to make.
It breathes heavy with originality but doesn’t shy away from borrowing things from the classics, like the ongoing metamorphosis of Wilkus being strikingly similar in ferocity to that of Seth Brundle’s excruciating change to fly in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. District 9 is a science fiction classic all by itself, and Blomkamp didn’t need the backing of a popular videogame to do so. In a perfect Hollywood, more District 9’s and less Halo’s would be made.
An outstanding aspect of District 9 is the absolute emotional honesty poured into the film. Blomkamp had first hand experience of apartheid in South Africa while growing up. Say what you will about the message seeping through the film’s pores, but Blomkamp’s vision of truth and honesty is evident and isn’t something you will find in most films of this kind. District 9 is truly a gritty breeding ground for degradation and pain, and the emotion is found from all parties whether it is human or alien. Both sides are given a fair shake at being good and evil, and the balance plays out well for the emotional tenacity of the film, a dimension some science fiction films about alien invaders don’t carry at all.
The true naturalistic cinéma vérité style of Blomkamp is executed as perfect as it has ever been done inside the science fiction/horror genres. Where other films come off as being unnatural and fake, Blomkamp’s direction and editing of the whole entire process is nearly perfect, making it truly feel as though the agents and people of Johannesburg are actually socializing and interacting with an alien species. Strange, I know, but this film looks great, proving a smallish budget of $30 million can bring great success at the hands of someone like Blomkamp.
One for the ages, District 9 is the best film I’ve seen all summer, and should serve as a blueprint for how to do the genre right in the 21st century. From a script that actually makes you care about its beings to great visual execution at a small price, Blomkamp proves you can make an engaging and heart-pounding masterpiece without the big names or the excessive wad of cash. Can someone please screen this film over and over again in front of all the executives in Hollywood? And make them take notes.