DISTRICT 9, released on this date back in 2009, which was a low-key strong year for movies, is the feature-film debut of Neill Blomkamp, the South African filmmaker who with his wife and co-writer, the Canadian screenwriter Terri Tatchell, expanded it from his 2006 short film ALIVE IN JOBURG. Both the short and the feature star South African actors Sharlto Copley and Jason Cope, and enlist a documentary style — and the conceit that what we are watching is a documentary itself, beamed in from a future Johannesburg, where tall, insect-like aliens have arrived on Earth and have since relocated to an encampment known as District 9.
The aliens are referred to derisively as “prawns” and kept in increasingly squalid conditions, until the South African government decides to relocate them all to another camp, outside Johannesburg. Copley (who soon after this movie’s success in the States got the role of “Howling Mad” Murdock in Joe Carnahan’s feature film version of THE A-TEAM), here plays a decidedly unheroic middle-manager type who works on the relocation effort until he’s afflicted with an alien substance that begins to cause him to slowly morph into one of the oppressed creatures himself. Cope plays “Christopher Johnson,” one of the “prawns” and a father to an adorable young son, who is due to be relocated.
Though DISTRICT 9 begins in mockumentary form, the movie itself morphs into an exciting, spirited action movie that evokes real-world issues — how much more potent a metaphor could a movie set in South Africa possibly have? — without being too overt and obnoxious about it. Arguably its most remarkable achievement is the way it shifts the audience’s allegiance in the case of “Christopher Johnson” and the other “prawns” – at first we’re disgusted by them, then we are actively rooting for them against our own species, and ultimately we’re moved by their plight. That’s not just an achievement of brilliant visual effects, which it is, but also an achievement of storytelling.
That was true in 2009 and it’s still true of the film today, and it made genre fans everywhere very excited about the promise of Neill Blomkamp as a genre filmmaker in the mold of maybe a James Cameron or a Peter Jackson (a producer on DISTRICT 9), able to work with sophisticated VFX while delivering an emotionally moving tale with hissable villains and surprising protagonists. Blomkamp’s follow-up feature was the hugely ambitious and — in my opinion — fatally flawed ELYSIUM. In retrospect, DISTRICT 9, while a thrilling and accomplished debut, does have minor pebbles in its shoe, such as the overly monstrous portrayal of the warlord character and the way the movie abandons the mockumentary format pretty early on. And after 2015’s CHAPPIE*, an action melodrama starring a robot (played by Copley), we didn’t hear too much from Blomkamp for a while. It seemed he was going to be one of those filmmakers whose name was endlessly linked to awesome-sounding projects that never came to pass, from the HALO movie he and Jackson had planned, to Blomkamp’s concepts for a new ALIEN and a new ROBOCOP.
Happily, Blomkamp is returning this month with the horror film DEMONIC, which all of us at DG are very excited about. Like the down-and-out but determined protagonists of DISTRICT 9, that just goes to show that it’s always possible to come back, maybe differently, but sometimes even stronger than before.
*To date, I haven’t gotten around to seeing CHAPPIE for myself. It was much-derided in cinephile circles on Twitter and other dingy social-media basements, but lately I have seen it starting to grow in estimation as an underdog gem from a still-adventurous filmmaker. Apropos of nothing, a very good friend of mine was nicknamed “Chappie” by certain friends back in college, which is something that never occurred to me until just now. He is not, to my knowledge, a robot.
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Tags: Clinton Shorter, Columns, Jason Cope, Johannesburg, Movie Of The Day, Nathalie Boltt, Neill Blomkamp, New Zealand, Peter Jackson, Sharlto Copley, South Africa, Sylvaine Strike, Terri Tatchell, Trent Opaloch