new release : DISTRICT 9 : 9/10

“An exceptional, extremely intelligent, thematically controversial science-fiction movie… [The] Film is complicated, particularly during the last few minutes, but it’s always fascinating and exciting. And Quatermass isn’t our usual hunk hero.”
             Danny Peary on Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

If Professor Bernard Quatermass – as played by jowly, bearded, middle-aged Andrew Keir in the 1967 picture – “isn’t our usual hunk hero” then neither is Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), main protagonist of the outstanding new science-fiction/thriller/comedy/action-movie District 9. A dweeby, ferret-faced functionary working for a nefarious multi-national corporation – having secured his position via sheer old-fashioned nepotism rather than any particular personal skills – Wikus is tasked with helping move over a million extra-terrestrials from the centre of Johannesburg to a new “facility” (i.e. concentration-camp) hundreds of kilometres from the city.
   The aliens have been living in South Africa for nearly three decades, since their vast ship ran out of energy and came to a halt over the country’s biggest city. Trapped inside, the starving occupants – bipedal, insectoid, intelligent creatures nicknamed ‘prawns’ by their new neighbours – were eventually freed from their stygian captivity by human intervention and were installed in a temporary shanty-town immediately below their ship. As is the way of these things, temporary accommodation ended up becoming permanent, but eventually inter-species frictions reached a point whereby the authorities decided alien evacuation was the most desirable step. At which point enter Wikus Van Der Merwe and his trigger-happy cronies – and cue all manner of complications, mishaps, catastrophes and unexpected developments. Several of which very intimately involve Wikus himself…
   As indicated by the above synopsis, District 9 is rather heavy on exposition and plot, much of it related via documentary or TV-news-style inserts. Numerous questions remain “up in the air”, however: what impact did the aliens’ arrival have on South African politics and social change post-1982? In this alternative time-line, the apartheid system evidently did disappear – but there’s no mention of Nelson Mandela or the ANC. This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but is a minor distraction in a picture predicated on a pretty blunt allegory for the historic mistreatment of South Africa’s black population. Most of the action unfolds in the summer of 2010 – but if the World Cup is unfolding in South Africa, it’s keeping an extremely low profile. Would the ‘prawns’, mostly strong and agile sorts with a heck of a strong kick, be eligible to play for South Africa in the tournament? Do FIFA rules forbid inter-species involvement? 
   These are, however, very minor quibbles – District 9 is such a rock-the-house, thunderously enjoyable, endlessly thought-provoking film, one that plays a bit like some dream collaboration between a peak-form Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale and a similarly on-his-game Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers). Director Neill Blomkamp and his co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell have evidently studied and learned from the work of both men (in particular Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit and The Quatermass Experiment), as well as a stack of other sci-fi and horror antecedents, but have managed to come up with something that feels disarmingly fresh and original. Balancing humour, slam-bang action, eye-popping special effects (including numerous exploding bodies) with a genuinely moving strain of emotion-tugging sentimentality Blomkamp and Tatchell have crafted something of a wonder on what is, in Hollywood terms, an absurdly limited budget. There are grace-notes of unexpectedly transcendent splendour here amid all the grit, grime and squalor, allied with a particularly sharp eye for how the media can be manipulated to demonise troublesome individuals as terrorists, sexual deviants – or both.
   The term “calling-card” seems laughably inadequate for a project that has propelled Blomkamp, a protege of Peter Jackson (who co-produces and ‘presents’ the movie) from obscurity to the big leagues in a single, prawn-like bound. It seems incredible that he’s never made a feature-film before – likewise the information that Copley had never even acted professionally in any capacity will strike most viewers as a more fantastical proposition than anything in the picture itself. His achievement is all the more remarkable, as many of his scenes weren’t created via a conventional script: Copley improvised his lines (most of which involve the Afrikaans expletive ‘fok’, whose pronunciation makes Wikus sound amusingly Scouse/Irish/Geordie) and had to interact with an array of non-existent “characters” added later via CGI. Most prominent among the latter is the movie’s main ‘prawn’, a resourceful, technologically-savvy chap officially given the human-sounding name ‘Christopher Johnson.’ 
   In fact, it’s Johnson who emerges as what is, in storytelling terms, the most conventional “hero” of the story – Wikus’s behaviour sorely tests our sympathy at numerous junctures – while the script also provides us with a gallery of eminently hissable, scene-stealing villains, including Eugene Khumbanyiwa as a drawling, cannibalistic Nigerian warlord (the subplot involving prawn-exploiting Nigerian criminals is among the movie’s most surprising and offbeat elements) and David James as the multi-national’s despicably thuggish security operative Koobus Venter – Wikus’s relentless would-be nemesis. The overall result is, minor flaws and rough edges notwithstanding, an utterly engaging, full-blooded romp that goes like the clappers from first frame till the last. It is, by some distance, the best new film of 2009 so far.

Neil Young
7th September, 2009

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director : Neill Blomkamp
country : USA/NZ
year : 2009
run-time : 112m (BBFC)

seen : 4th September, 2009
cinema : Cineworld, Boldon
format : 35mm
paid :  £4.70

MVP : Neill Blomkamp
respected second opinion : Mike D’Angelo, IFC.com