Sunday, 27 December 2009

DVD Review: District 9

Tired of turkey left-overs and reheated TV repeats? Then hurry ye down to your local DVD emporium for, in the midst of the post-Christmas lull, one of the better SF blockbuster movies of the year is making its debut on shiny disc tomorrow (28th December) and if you’re bored with the noisy emptiness of the likes of Transformers and yearning for something a bit more adult in the genre you need to catch up with ‘District 9’ Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature film if you missed its cinema release because, like Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon’ a few weeks back, it’s an SF movie with a heart and a soul and a real sense of imagination.

28 years ago a great big rusty-looking spaceship parked itself above the city of Johannesburg and just...sat there. Months passed. Nothing stirred. Eventually the authorities broke through the hull and found the ship full of filthy, starving refugee alien creatures quickly dubbed ‘prawns’ because...well, they looked a bit like walking prawns. The aliens were quickly repatriated to the city below and found themselves grubbing about in thesqualor of a rancid shanty town known as District 9. The years rolled by and with their spaceship still suspended above the city, the prawns are becoming a nuisance. They’re preyed on by local gangsters who bribe the prawns with cat food (they’re obsessed with it) in turn for alien weapons technology which won’t work for humans. The prawns are becoming a nuisance generally, killing and robbing indiscriminately. Time they moved on. The Government sets up a new purpose-built compound away from the heart of the city; but how to peaceably evict a million jabbering , jittery alien life-forms? Wiry Wikus Van De Merwe is the hapless civil servant drafted in to oversee the mass alien eviction; but when he’s infected by prawn DNA he starts to undergo a grisly metamorphosis. Realising his mutating DNA will allow him – and thus humanity – to access the previously stubbornly inoperable alien weaponry, the authorities quickly lock Wikus up and start experimenting on him. But Wikus escapes and rushes back to District 9 in search of a cure for his terrible new affliction...

‘District 9’ is a frustratingly-schizophrenic movie. Apparently taking its lead from the likes of ‘Cloverfield’ (a lead still being followed in the recent ‘Paranormal Activity’) ‘District 9’ starts out in documentary-style, with grainy at-the-time photography, comments by on-screen cultural observers and sociologists, what purports to be filmed footage of the unfortunate and nervy Wikus preparing to take on a job he’s clearly been over-promoted into. So far, so real. But the trouble is that, to tell its full story, ‘District 9’ has to abandon its documentary pretensions and become a more rousing sci-fi thriller with everything that goes with it – special effects, incidental music, a proper narrative, actors acting. Given the nature of the story and the detail required to get that story across it’s clear it was always going to be thus; the documentary ‘gimmick’ is a good one but it’s one only worth utilising if your story can fully support it. So it is that, twenty minutes or so into ‘District 9’ all the social comment and contemporary recollections are gone and we find ourselves flung into a more traditional action story. It’s no big deal because the film remains hugely entertaining but the stylistic jump is jarring and it’s noticeable and, especially as the film tries to return to its roots in the last reel (against jolting the audience out of the story), it disrupts the flow of the movie and it’s hard not to wonder if Blomkamp might have been better off abandoning the documentary trapping and saving them for a story better able to support them.

What we’re left with then, when the reality stuff becomes impractical, is a gripping and visceral story of one man against humanity, fighting for his life. Newcomer Sharlto Copley plays the bewildered and terrified Wikus and it’s a rousing performance (another strength of the movie lies in the fact that there are, obviously, no star names here) as not only does his body begin to transform but his entire personality as he battles to stay alive and stay human whatever the cost. As bits of his body fall off and crumble before our eyes Wikus resorts to desperate measures and in the end he literally becomes a blood-crazed killing machine, using a prawn fighting suit and blowing his human enemies to pieces with the alien weaponry his new biology gives him access to.

In many ways there’s not much here we haven’t seen before. The last reel, particularly, sees the film become a fairly typical SF actioner with a protracted gun battle as Wikus goes on his killing spree. Maybe here the film loses its novelty value and some of its originality but it’s no less entertaining just because it appears to have Gone Hollywood. The film looks achingly grimy, Blomkamp capturing the filth and decay of District 9, the feral existence of the refugees who are really little better off on earth than they were in their stinking spacecraft and, despite its low budget, the film never looks cheap and nasty. The spaceship looms large in most sequences, hanging over the city like a metal cloud, the prawns themselves are superbly realised (even though we rarely see them together in any great number) and the Terminator-like gun battle towards the end of the movie is breathtakingly energised stuff. Tender sensibilities may not be able to stomach the effects of the prawn weaponry – targets literally blow up, spraying blood in all directions. Nice!

What's most exciting about ‘District 9’ is the fact that this is Blomkamp’s first feature film and that he’s been able to craft something as richly-accomplished and exciting as this first time out of the blocks promises much for his future efforts. ‘District 9’ seems to be crying out for a ‘two years later’ sequel but I really hope Blomkamp can resist the temptation and move on to something new. But remember how well this movie did at the Box office, especially in America. With franchise movies under-performing alarmingly recently, it’s unlikely that Hollywood will be able to resist the allure of ‘more of the same’ (hopefully not an American remake, please). Whether it gets a sequel or not, ‘District 9’ is a breath of fresh air in the rather stuffy and moribund world of modern sci-fi cinema, an action film with an element of social commentary in amongst the hardware and the explosions. Despite its one or two minor shortcomings, it’s a terrific little film which you’ll remember far longer than the latest battle between the Decepticons and the Mogadons or whatever they’re called...

The DVD: Available as a single-disc edition with a commentary, some deleted scenes and a fairly-detailed multi-part documentary, or a two-disc edition which, like the Blu Ray, has a few more behind-the-scenes bits and pieces.

District 9 is available to buy in the UK on Monday 28th December 2009

No comments: