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District 9

(2009) ** 1/2 R
113 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Neill Blomkamp. Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, John Sumner.

/content/films/3536/1.jpgThese days a $30 million movie is considered low-budget, especially if it involves aliens. But let's not forget that District 9 was made outside of the Hollywood system (it's a South Africa/New Zealand co-production) with no stars. What are the worlds coming to? With celebrity producer Peter Jackson in his corner, first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp is riding a wave of hype that may help his scrappy District 9 get seen.

There's also a possibility that a star is born in first-time film actor Sharlto Copley (like Blomkamp, a South Africa-based director). Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe, an agent of the government-contracted company Multi-National United—the second-largest weapon manufacturer in the world, we're told—and its Department of Alien Affairs. In the universe of District 9, an alien mothership hovered to a halt over Johannesburg and was eventually emptied out into a slum below. The ship itself—seen through a thin South African haze—is the film's most special effect (Blomkamp and Sharlto both have a background in effects work), but it's all pretty impressive, including the rendering and real-world integration of crustacean-like aliens derisively dubbed "prawns" by their human overlords.

Using a documentary aesthetic, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell swiftly establish the film's allegory of racism, apartheid-style: District 9 is a squalid ghetto, "relocation" (read concentration) camps are the next step, and signs all around the slum read "No non-human loitering" (ironically, the slum is shared by superstitious Nigerian gangsters). Also figuring into the plot is an illegal genetic research facility that makes Gitmo look like a Sunday School.

For all this, it would be a mistake to think District 9 is deep. Blomkamp cultivates the "hey, look at this!" tone of a Super Bowl ad, and imagine watching one that runs nearly two hours. The film's gimmickry becomes increasingly obvious because the storytelling is malnourished, with a plot that's an excuse to string together cool stuff like alien weapons that liquefy targets into visceral splatter (that and New Zealand get you Peter Jackson) and a robotic super-suit with a holographic display. Blomkamp employs fast-paced editing and various forms of video (lots of CCTV and fake news footage), but he has structural problems: the documentary approach isn't used as an introduction, a framing device, or part of a rhythmically applied editing technique; rather, it's dropped and picked up haphazardly.

The story also raises some fundamental questions that aren't clearly addressed: the 1.8 million aliens have hugely powerful weapons (inoperable to humans) but don't use them to resist their incarceration by hostiles. It's implied that the aliens were bum-rushed into captivity in a weakened state and continuously trade the weapons away for food (amusingly, they loves them some cat food), but even one gun is enough to do serious damage. Furthermore, the plot largely hinges on the suggestion that a badly Photoshopped pic of a character supposedly having sex with an alien in broad daylight would be enough to make him an instant pariah (the provocative notion of interspecies prostitution, meanwhile, is treated as a one-liner).

Like the Belgian drama Lorna's Silence, District 9 posits an immoral anti-hero on board with murder who, by the end, has moved beyond selfishness to self-sacrifice (oh, if only this happened in the real world, in a matter of days). Wikus is seen callously firebombing alien fetuses and offering a subordinate a souvenir of his "first abortion," the worst behavior of a generally distasteful guy promoted to his level of incompetence. His transformation is partly physical: in a poorly explained plot point, he begins turning from a slimy human to slimy alien, very slowly despite warnings of how very quickly he's changing. The just desserts of this Cronenbergian body violation teach Wikus a Serling-esque lesson, in a character development that isn't easy to swallow (for Sharlto's part, he does technically impressive but often shrill work).

What Blomenkamp is really after is plentiful firepower and squirm-inducing carnage. A dedicated political allegory would have been nice, or a trashy sci-fi action pic. Maybe one day Blomkamp will have the Verhoeven knack for blending the two (a la two of Blomkamp's influences, Robocop and Starship Troopers), but for now District 9's City of God meets War of the Worlds hybrid proves overbearing and under-convincing.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 12/22/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

District 9 fans won't be disappointed with Sony's deluxe rendering on Blu-ray, which comes chock-full of HD extras. Picture quality is outstanding, partly due to an-all HD source (the film was shot on top-of-the-line HD cameras): the image is rock-solid, razor-sharp, and perfectly calibrated in color and contrast; textures can be particularly astonishing in their minute detail. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is the type to blow you out of your chair in the big moments, while also delivering subtleties of ambience, creepy-crawly alien effects, and crystal-clear dialogue, nicely prioritized even when the action gets crazy.

Sony delivers most kinds of bonus features in its varied extras package, beginning with Blu-exclusive cinechat and movieIQ features, which utilize BD-Live to connect viewers to other viewers and details about the film, cast and crew. Also Blu exclusive is the very cool Joburg from Above: Satellite and Schematics of the World of District 9 - Interactive Map (HD). It's self-explanatory, but this highly detailed feature allows the viewer to take a self-guided tour of the film's environments (District 9, the mothership, MNU HQ) while reading a wealth of database dossiers on the world of the film (intelligence on the aliens, government background, concept art, 3D schematics of buildings, etc.).

There's a commentary with director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp that gives wall-to-wall detail about the film's conception, casting and making, as well as the role of celebrity producer Peter Jackson. 22 "Deleted Scenes" (23:28, HD) further fill out our understanding of the world of the film.

The disc's primary making-of is "The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log" (34:19, HD), which includes a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp, producer Peter Jackson, co-writer Terri Tatchell, Jason Cope, director of photography Trent Opaloch, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, David James, special effects supervisor Max Poolman, lead set decorator Guy Potgieter, art director Mike Berg, art director Emelia Weavind, production designer Philip Ivey, sound design & alien vocals Dave Whitehead, supervising sound editor Brent Burge, and film editor Julian Clarke.

"Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus" (9:52, HD) includes interviews with Blomkamp, Copley, and prosthetics makeup supervisor Sarah Rubano, while "Innovation: The Acting and Improvisation of District 9" (12:05, HD) gives an intriguing look at how individual scenes were created, with Blomkamp, Tatchell, Copley, casting director Denton Douglas, Cope, Gaduka, and James.

"Conception and Design: Creating the World of District 9" (13:18, HD) includes interviews with Ivey, prosthetics effects supervisor Joe Dunckley, Weta Workshop lead concept designer Greg Broadmore, Weta design & effects supervisor Richard Taylor, Weta lead creature designer David Meng, Image Engine visual effects supervisor Dan Kaufman, Tatchell, Berg, Kliptown liaison David Bloem, and Embassy Visual Effects visual effects supervisor Robert Habros, while "Alien Generation: The Visual Effects of District 9" (10:18, HD) features Blomkamp, Habros, Kaufman, Cope, Dunckley, Copley, and Embassy Visual Effects on-set VFX supervisor Winston Helgason.

A second disc houses a Digital Copy of the Film, and for a contingent of viewers, there's also a highly touted God of War III Playable Playstation 3 Game Demo that includes an exclusive making-of about the game.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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