Gripping, satirical, and gory, District 9 was shockingly good. We saw a sneak preview of the entire film last night and have a few spoiler-free impressions to share.
The audience was simply blown away by the film, whose style was very different from what most of us expected. Shot on digital in a pseudo-documentary style, the movie follows the adventures of Wikus, a bureaucrat heading up a mass eviction operation for the 2.5 million residents of "district 9," a 20-year-old alien favela outside Johannesburg. All the aliens are going to be relocated to a camp hundreds of kilometers away from the city and its alien-hating residents.
Scenes shot inside the favela are intense and disturbing, a much darker and more satirical vision of slum life than what we've see in movies like Slumdog Millionaire. We see a massive shantytown, packed with insect-like aliens (humans derisively call them "prawns") reduced to lives of crime and poverty. Nigerians sell them cat food for inflated prices, and try to buy alien weapons from them. The only meat they can get are animal heads. These establishing shots are very affecting, and starkly political without being preachy.
We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened to Wikus during the relocation, and unraveling the mystery of what that is what draws us through the tightly-paced story. I won't reveal much more, but I will say that the Wikus character is delightfully ambiguous. He's not a good guy by any means, although he manages to stumble into a few heroic acts. And the "prawn" are not easily classed as victims, though they have become the new outcast class of South African society.
The aliens, designed by Canadian special effects house Image Engine, look completely otherworldly but still manage to have distinct personalities and become sympathetic characters.
One of the many things that makes this film feel very different from your standard summer scifi fare was that it wasn't afraid to get gritty and disturbingly violent. There are no clean robot fights punctuated by bloodless explosions. Bodies are reduced to Jackson-style splatter-goo; fights are brutal rather than fun. Even though the movie is completely fanciful, the documentary style makes you feel like you're watching actual slum violence. I don't want to overemphasize the seriousness of the movie though – there is a lot of dark satire, which emerges in both the writing and performances.
Peter Jackson introduced the film and director Neill Blomkamp, a newcomer from South Africa who based the original script on a short film he'd created called "Alive in Joburg." Jackson called District 9 a low-budget film that reminded him of his early days doing "splatstick" flicks like Bad Taste and Braindead. Blomkamp and Jackson joked around a bit, and also introduce the star of the film, Sharlto Copley, an old school chum of Blomkamp's in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Clearly they'd had a lot of fun making the movie, and the spirit of independent creativity they brought to it definitely came through in the finished product. This is definitely one of the best scifi movies of the year – indeed, one of the best movies period.. I don't want to overhype it for you, but I think this dark, angry, smart movie signals the start of a promising career for Neill Blomkamp.