Fetching $200m from a $30m budget, Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature joined Duncan Jones’ Moon in tearing our eyeballs away from the bigger, more mechanised sci-fi lummoxes last year.
Do this dogged duo constitute a ‘game-changing’ alternative to Avatar’s costlier adventure? Tough call, but they at least tapped the potential in relocating sci-fi to the turf of concept and character, subtext and substance.
Relocation’s at District 9’s core because its non-cuddly alien ‘prawns’ come to South Africa, where they’re hoarded into a slum and oppressed. When a corporation, MNU, demands their transfer to a refugee camp, the man charged with issuing notices is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a drone whose contempt for ‘prawns’ shifts after he inhales an alien fluid, starts mutating from selfish to shellfish, hides from MNU’s bioweaponry division among the aliens and slowly befriends a crustacean father and son.
Blomkamp’s set-up displays a ferocious clout of conviction. From an allegorical premise, Blomkamp fuses Starship Troopers-ish ‘splatire’ with body horror, Enemy Mine-ish buddy-movie business and a thrilling, speaker-stretching wallop of RoboCopish hardware porn. But as Blomkamp says on the stack of extras (including some featurettes, exclusive to Blu), District 9 remains “incredibly personal”, drawing on his youth in South Africa.
His style’s singularly effective too, awesomely so on Blu-ray. Blomkamp admits he struggled to square “limited funds” with “a shitload of aliens” but the detail in their digi-mandibles, jerky movements and bustling motion impresses. Wikus’ Brundle-prawn prosthetics amaze equally: a gruesome FX extra reveals painstaking hours of application and sleeplessness endured by Copley.
More importantly, District 9 is terrific storytelling. As Blomkamp says on his talk-track, the mock-doc opening is “chock-full… [it] comes at you pretty quickly”, the emphasis placed less on pausing to relish FX than on a sharply layered hit of viewer-orientating info.
The scuzzy setting and improvised acting cement the credibility. Copley (Murdock in the upcoming A-Team reboot) emerges as an earthy star, evolving from dork to desperate man to become, with delicious perversity, more likeable as he becomes more prawn-ly.
Chatting passionately and with endearing anxiety on a commentary recorded before District 9’s release, Blomkamp muses on what might happen to his movie by the time it hits disc. “Hopefully,” he says, “it’s been mildly successful.” For “mildly”, read “massively”.
Will he relocate to Hollywood’s franchise farm as a result? We hope not, but count us in for District 10.
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