District 9
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Visual Effects (Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros and Matt Aitken)

Director (Neill Blomkamp)
Actor (Sharlto Copley)
Art Direction (Philip Ivey)
Sound (Brent Burge, Chris Ward, Dave Whitehead, Michael Hedges and Ken Saville)

Theatrical Release Date: 08/14/2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Nathalie Boltt, Greg Melvill-Smith, Nick Blake, Mandla Gaduka, David James, Kenneth Nkosi, Robert Hobbs

What do you do when studios back out of greenlighting a “Halo” movie because of the cost and only allot $30 million for a feature-length extrapolation of your short film about aliens forced to live in a camp in Johannesburg, South Africa? Well, if you’re Neill Blomkamp and have producer Peter Jackson behind you, the answer is that you make a sci-fi film that most other directors would have spent well over $100 million on and show Hollywood that money alone isn’t what makes a special effects and creature laden movie work.

“District 9″ is set up to look like a documentary interlaced with dramatized scenes, in an effort to make everything seem realistic and give the film that extra bit of gravitas. The story centers on a mid-level bureacrat (Sharlto Copley) with the alien affairs department in Johannesburg as he supervises preparations for moving the aliens from one camp to another, father away from humans in order to ease civil unrest.

Going into the film, I was hoping to see a broader brush applied, to get the societal point of view not only on the existence of other life but how the two species interacted and the test of our “humanity” in dealing with extraterrestrial visitors who were stranded on our planet. The Apartheid allegory is intact but it’s dealt with more peripherally as the focus is firmly set on Copley as the “well-planned” move of over 1.5 million aliens becomes a little bit messy and unveils a subplot I’d best not mention in a review for fear of spoiling things.

The effects that Blomkamp are able to deliver work very, very well and are far better than the over-stylized attemps that most directors may have used if they had a bottomless pit of a budget and 75 high-priced nerds in their mothers’ basements. Forced to improvise and innovate, Blomkamp gives audiences a grittier approach to things and the result is a big success. Many of the alien’s facial movements are too obviously CGI but I can’t fault the filmmakers given what they had to work with and overall they look fantastic and the subtitled approach to the language barrier is handled smoothly.

Much of the action has a video game feel to it but it isn’t so jarring that it seems out of place and the interactions between aliens and humans come off naturally. The alien mothership and weaponry go along with the video game sensibility but don’t feel cheapened at all and because there wasn’t any extra cash to make everything a bit glitzier, the result is a subtle and subdued environment that helps to immerse the audience in the story.

For the most part, I also enjoyed the acting performances. I think the actors all delivered what Blomkamp asked of them and Copley does a very nice job of being the everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances – not only rising to the very best of what we are capable of but also sinking below the morality Mendoza line.

However, I did find fault with Blomkamp’s tone as the film would switch back and forth from the faux-documentary. Some of the people giving testimonials about the events in the film were buffoonish or uncomfortably awkward and it dislodged me from the story almost every time.

One other thing to note for people is that there is more than a decent amount of blood and gore in the film. I found the grimy approach to the project realistic and necessary but for people who may be a little squeamish, you’ve been forewarned (and I’m probably being a bit over-cautious in saying that).

An aspect of the film that I especially enjoyed though was the layered social structure Blomkamp delivered. Instead of being just humans and aliens, there were aliens who were smarter than others, aliens who followed pack mentality, gangs capitalizing on the squalor and desperation of the aliens, executives running the show from afar, mercenaries making a quick buck and meting out their own brand of justice, and average, middle class folks just trying to get by.

The struggle between the classes and species was a story point I had hoped would be the central focus but that’s on me. That Blomkamp and crew chose to concentrate on other aspects is understandable and I don’t fault them for that – however I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film overall.

Still, I’m giving “District 9″ the benefit of the doubt here because of how Blomkamp was able to deliver his story with so little financial resources behind him. His ability to be resourceful and give audiences a big-budget alien movie without the budget is impressive so I’ll tip the scales and give the film a 4 out of 5. I still have some issues with the faux-documentary style and would personally liked to have seen a greater focus on society rather than the individual but this is easily one of the more interesting sci-fi films to come along in the last few years and well worth it for fans of the genre.