Saturday 16 January 2010

District 9 (2009) [Blu-ray]

Saturday 16 January 2010

An amalgamation of Alien Nation and The Fly, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a sci-fi political allegory littered with hardware from Halo, the popular video-game he helped advertise. This, his breakthrough feature-film, is a Hollywood-financed expansion of Blomkamp's 2005 short Alive In Joburg, championed by sponsor Peter Jackson, whose post-LOTR influence (not to mention filming in far-flung South Africa) ensured studio interference for the "remake" was avoided. The $30 million gamble paid-off to the tune of over $200 million worldwide...

It's been 26-years since a city-sized alien spaceship came to inexplicably hover above Johannesburg, South Africa. Since then, the emaciated extra-terrestrial masses discovered inside (colloquially known as "prawns" because of their skinny, crustacean appearance) were rounded up into the titular internment camp on terra firma. It's a fun apartheid metaphor, but what follows is more a companion piece to James Cameron's Avatar; the story of a blasé white-collar stooge, Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who gets infected by an oily alien "fluid" while leading the enforced migration of prawns to District 10, and thereafter proceeds to gradually transform into one of their kind. This metamorphosis proves to have a sinister advantage for Wikus' employers, global arms dealers Multinational United (M.N.U), who have been trying for years to get the alien's awesome biometric weaponry to work with human subjects...

District 9: official UK site

I know from first-hand experience that not everyone responds well to films with a "shaky-cam" aesthetic, claiming it makes everything feel cheap and can be nauseas to watch, but I've never agreed with that sentiment. To me, it makes everything feel more immediate and realistic, and I've never experienced a sense of queasiness. District 9 suits this stylistic treatment, but what's particularly clever is how the narrative gradually transforms (hey, there's that word again) from kinetic fly-on-the-wall to the sort of "controlled chaos" made popular in the Bourne Identity saga. Maybe it's even a subliminal suggestion that Wikus' bodily alteration brings a calming influence and higher-thinking?

It's always wonderful to bask in the radiance of a filmmaker bringing their undiluted vision to life, with no concessions to "the suits". From the very start you're dropped into Blomkamp's parallel universe, nearly three decade's worth of back-story is communicated within 5 minutes, and you totally buy into the leftfield reality. The film hits the ground running and the pacing rarely flags, yet never overwhelms or tires you -- possibly because, sure, the storyline isn't exactly taxing or even that unique. District 9 follows a fairly predictable path, although a few of early preconceptions are bent out of shape towards the end (which I was pleased about), and the crowd-pleasing climax is a smart, arresting spectacle that works because the film spent time making Wikus relatable and his situation sympathetic. Likewise the CGI "prawns" -- startlingly brought to life on-screen by WETA, resembling biological versions of Transformers, only with... well, personality. And that's even more astonishing considering they only communicate through subtitled, guttural clicks.

The main synthepsian is alien ally "Christopher", possibly named after the Patron Saint of Travellers, baring him mind his species' trip across the stars, or more likely a "Christ" figure who duly ascends to "heaven" in the climax. As Christopher's the father of a chirruping son, with Wikus I guess bonding with the aliens via their infectious "spirit", you could possibly read a bizarre Holy Trinity undertone to the threesome, too.

Overall, District 9 is a shrewd hybrid of box-office action-fest and cerebral sci-fi with themes and allegories to give the drama a sense of weight and purpose. It's exciting to visit a place that's not smothered by the clichéd Western worldview, as the South African setting itself gives District 9 a unique perspective on a story we've had versions of before. I particularly loved the interesting subplots that nudge into the main story from the periphery; like the gang of African mystics who believe eating alien body parts will allow them to use the alien weaponry they collect, in exchange for tins of cat food (which is like, well, catnip to prawns.) It's all very believable and immediate filmmaking, blessed with fantastic visual effects that belie the relatively low budget (producer Jackson called in favours with WETA, no doubt), and features a breakthrough performance from Sharlto Copley -- who goes from nerdy passive racist, to enraged fugitive, to determined revolutionary, and is captivating through every stage of his physical/mental transformation.

If there are faults with the film, they're primarily down to taste. As I said, the documentary-style filming isn't for everyone (although it blends with more traditional techniques seamlessly midway through), and it's perhaps too "yucky" for people who wince at people's heads exploding, or men vomiting black fluid. But, if you like "sci-fi vérité" with something for your mind to chew on inbetween the visuals, look no further.


Picture: (1.85:1, MPEG-4 AVC, 1080P) A wonderful transfer from start to finish; razor-sharp detail, deep black, natural flesh tones, and great vibrancy of colour. Very difficult, nay impossible, to fault.

Sound: (English DTS-HD MA 5.1, French DTS-HD MA 5.1. English Audio Descriptive Service DD5.1) Excellent soundmix that keep the dialogue strong, while providing plenty of surround sound effects and atmospherics.

Special Features

Commentary by director Neill Blomkamp: A really excellent commentary from the talent South African director that's a lot more informative and comprehensive than the featurettes elsewhere on the disc, if you ask me. It's particularly interesting when Blomkamp fills us in on the project's background, his relationship with star Sharlto Copley and how the visual effects were accomplished.

Joburg From Above: Satellite & Schematics Of The World Of District 9 – Interactive Map (HD): The new Blu-ray format means a greater level of interactivity with discs, although the prospect of using your remote to control to navigate a "web browser" with maps of District 9's ghetto, the alien ship and M.N.U building (with text-based information included for each) isn't one I'm particularly keen on.

Deleted Scenes (HD): Given the film's semi-improvised nature, there are a huge amount of deleted scenes here (approx. 25 mins), although only ones that star Sharlo Copley or expand on the film's premise are worth watching. Most are still very unlikely to excite casual audiences, though: "MNU Agent Field Training" (1.15), "Anti-Alien Riot" (0.44), "Cryo-Alien" (1.12), "Kids & Space Rat Muti" (1.29), "Kids Play With Alien Technology" (1.09), "Meat Seller" (1.12), "Muti" (1.46), "Shack Fire" (1.12), "Dirk Michaels TV Interview" (2.08), "MNU Office" (1.13), "Aggro Alien" (0.39), "Roof Alien" (0.26), "Stolen Alien Goods" (0.36), "Alien Rips Off Fundiswa" (0.39), "Dead Dog & Alien" (0.52), "Ghettoblaster" (0.34), "Alien Reproductive System" (1.42), "Bad Kids" (0.33), "Clinic Visit" (2.27), "Steal Tank" (1.01) and "Koobus Big Gun" (0.36).

The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log (HD): A decent documentary on the film's creation, split into three chapters -- "1 – Envisioning District 9" (7.49), "2 – Shooting District 9" (16.34) and "3 – Refining District 9" (9.54) I found it interesting that they filmed much of the documentary-style footage using a Sony EX1, then switched to the RED camera for the more traditional filming. And we also discover that the sound of the prawn's clicky-clack voices were partly created by rubbing a breadknife along the skin of a pumpkin.

Metamorphosis – The Transformation Of Wikus (HD, 9.52): An extension of the previous documentary, showing the makeup effects that slowly transformed Sharlto Copley into a half-alien. There's nothing very revelatory here, although I found it amusing that Copley had to sleep while wearing his prosthetic arm one night.

Innovation – The Acting & Improvisation Of District 9 (HD, 12.05): While there was a script behind the film, a lot of scenes were improvised to give everything the veneer of realism. This featurette shows the various actors bouncing lines off each other on location, led by Copley – who at one stage admits he has "no major acting aspirations." He's co-starring in The A-Team movie this summer.

Conception & Design – Creating The World Of District 9 (HD, 13.18): This featurette looks at how the film's designers built alien weapons, spaceships and environments, but also how they merged their aesthetics to the slum reality of Johannesburg. The desire to have a strong '70s/'80s sci-fi vibe is also made clear.

Alien Generation – The Visual Effects Of Distruct 9 (HD, 10.18): Blomkamp's undeniably more interested in visual effects than practical effects, so it's a bit disappointing this featurette's so short. But you still get a fun overview of how the FX crew tirelessly erased actors in lycra bodysuits and replaced them with digital aliens. For a relatively low-budget sci-fi movie, it's quite extraordinary how much time and effort went into this endeavour, not helped by Blomkamp's "shaky-cam" style. It was also fascinating to learn that they have to create a 360-degree capture of real-world environments, which they used to map lighting details to the "exo-suit" that gets used in the finale.

Trailer: "Michael Jackson's This Is It"

Miscelleneous: Cinechat, MovieIQ and BD-Live functionality are also included on this disc. I remain unconvinced they ever get used by 95% of consumers, though.

DIRECTOR: Neill Blomkamp
SCREENWRITERS: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell

CAST: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, David James, William Allen Young, Louis Minnaar, Mandla Gaduka, Vanessa Haywood, Johan van Schoor & Stella Steenkamp

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes BUDGET: $30 million