Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Originating from South African director Neill Blomkamp’s 2005 short “Alive in Joburg,” District 9 quite possibly owes its existence in its current form to the fact that the Peter Jackson-produced Halo adaptation Blomkamp was meant to direct, died one of those nasty Hollywood deaths you sometimes hear about. (Or, as Blomkamp puts it, “imploded.”)*
So there’s a fair amount of sacrifice that went into the foundations of the District 9 feature, but let me assure you, it’s an astounding triumph for independently-produced science fiction cinema.
It’s been 20 years since a damaged extraterrestrial spacecraft settled above Johannesburg, and the marooned aliens (referred to by the derogatory term “prawns”) have been forced by circumstance and bureaucracy to live in a slum, the titular District 9.
But the time has come when the government, apparently no longer able to withstand pressure from an unsympathetic public, is readying to forcibly evict the aliens to District 10, a barbed wire-enclosed reserve far away from the human population.
And even as the eviction operation is mounted—led by MNU employee Wikus Van De Merwe (a terribly impressive Sharlto Copley, in his first feature role; incidentally, Copley was the producer on “Alive in Joburg”)—a two decade-long plan is about to come to fruition in the heart of the alien shantytown.
Those are the bare bones of District 9’s plot, and if the film only had that to offer, it may very well have already been an excellent film in its own right.
But the fact that Blomkamp (and co-writer Terri Tatchell) are able to create a very palpable reality for the narrative to take place in, while infusing the material with potent social and cultural commentary (and still manage to present its audience with destructive alien weaponry and things going ka-blooey), makes District 9 a very important genre film, one that has emerged as one of the best titles in this rather lacklustre summer.
Partially presented in interviews and documented footage from the eviction operation, District 9 is a powerful cinematic experience, a sombre document of a world which—despite first contact already having been made—still looks awfully like our own unenlightened one.
District 9—like Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica—is hard-hitting science fiction which is timely and relevant, managing to take on issues and problems that plague us in the here and now.
Unlike BSG though, much of the dialogue in District 9 is improvised. Keeping that in mind, it becomes clear that that’s another notch, not just in Copley’s belt (for creating a believable and authentic character, and for being and speaking for that character in front of the camera), but in Blomkamp’s and editor’s Julian Clarke’s as well, for finding the movie amidst all the multiple takes and improv.
“From [Neill Blomkamp’s] first pitching of me to what “Alive in Joburg” was going to be, which I produced for him, I got it. I got the world. I got the whole thing, and the project resonated with me very closely. Growing up in South Africa there is a lot of pain, and there is a lot of stuff that has been dealt with there in ways that it hasn’t been dealt with in other countries.” -- Sharlto Copley
Science fiction, at its best, is cautionary, warning us as a species of where we could end up, if we’re not careful.
It’s a sad statement that District 9 isn’t even cautionary science fiction, not when you live in a world where poverty is rampant, where people live in corrugated tin shacks, and rummage through mounds of garbage for their livelihood and next meal.
It isn’t cautionary when the unscrupulous and opportunistic can be found, not just in the slums, but in the board rooms as well.
It isn’t cautionary when our race’s history repeatedly describes our tendency to alienate and ostracize, to keep at arm’s length that which is different, that which is other.
District 9 is a stunning achievement, and the fact that it’s Blomkamp’s debut feature makes it all the more astounding.
This is relatively inexpensive science fiction (at a reported production cost of $30 million, it was made for 15% of the budgets of either Revenge of the Fallen or Terminator Salvation) that actually has something to say, that can spark discussion and debate.
This is science fiction worthy of the name, and is a resounding triumph, not just for producer Peter Jackson, but for the pair of feature freshmen at its centre—Blomkamp and Copley—who we’re likely to hear more of, in the days and years to come.
* Yes, it’s entirely possible Blomkamp would have still made District 9, even if Halo had happened, but given what this man’s clearly capable of, I’d like to think a post-Halo District 9 would have been saddled with a bigger budget, and if that were the case, it wouldn’t have been the same District 9 we’ve been so thoroughly blessed with…
Parting shot: We also have Fran Walsh to thank for District 9, as it was apparently her idea (thrown at Blomkamp in the Jacksons’ kitchen following the Halo adaptation’s “implosion”) to expand “Alive in Joburg” into a feature film.
Fran Walsh rules!!!
Parting shot 2: Copley actually has a feature he’s directed, Spoon, which is already completed and waiting in the wings for release. Copley describes it as “… a supernatural thriller. It’s a guy who suffers from a medical condition and blacks out when he gets stressed, and weird things happen every time he does, and he’s trying to piece together what is going on in his life.”
All sorts of potential awesome, yes?
(District 9 OS’s courtesy of impawards.com; images courtesy of filmstarts.de.)