District 9 DVD: Review By Brian Gallagher

This film triumphs in ways few films do, with ultimate popcorn thrills, an immersive story and perhaps the ultimate proof that originality isn't dead after all in Hollywood.
  • Feature
  • Picture
  • Sound
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
NOTHING... well, some more special features would be cool, but there are more on the two-disc and BD versions. Oh well.
This film has a rather bizarre history to it. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were all set to make Blomkamp's feature film debut with the adaptation of the wildly-successful video game Halo... until both studios involved pulled their funding. But every cloud has a proverbial silver lining, even in Hollywood, and because Jackson enjoyed working with Blomkamp so much on that project in pre-production, they decided to make Blomkamp's District 9 instead, a film that stands out in a strong 2009 pack as one of the best films of the year.

For a film that boasts these bizarre aliens, and loads of wonderful genre action, this film opens in a rather bizarre place: an office building where Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is introducing himself via some doc*mentary footage taken from his job at Multi-National United, or MNU. Through his interviews and other interviews of prominent people involved in this whole scenario, we come to learn that 23 years ago, a mysterious spacecraft hovered to a stop right above Johannesburg, South Africa, which eventually lead to the discovery of the aliens they came to call "prawns," which lead to MNU forcing the prawns into a huge ramshackle housing tract dubbed District 9. With a lot of undesirable elements in D-9, like gangster Nigerians (even though many signs state that humans aren't allowed in District 9) and more, the film starts out as MNU is about to deploy people into D-9 to start the evacuation process as they are going to move the prawns to another location. As these layers of the film are brilliantly unspooled, you just can't help but be pulled deeper and deeper into this compelling world of aliens and humans in this film that is an instant sci-fi classic and, in a movie age of relentless sequels and remakes, proves that it does pay off to be original in Hollywood after all.

What's even more impressive of the film's success ($115 million domestic gross from a $30 million budget) is that, aside from producer Peter Jackson, there isn't a single recognizable name in the entire production, except for, I suppose, those who were aware of Blomkamp's work on Halo, but still, that's it. A star was certainly born in the form of Sharlto Copley, who delivers quite a powerful performance as Wikus Van De Merwe, a character who has perhaps one of the most intriguing character arcs and transformation (literally and figuratively) of any character we saw in 2009. The most shocking thing about Copley's performance is that this is his feature film debut (with his only other acting credit on Blomkamp's short, Alive in Joburg), which surely has to be the film debut of the decade and perhaps the most impressive feature film debut since Edward Norton took the world by storm, coming out of nowhere to star in Primal Fear in 1996. I'm aware of how bold a statement that is, yes, but Vikus Van De Merwe is such a complex character that goes through every emotion on the spectrum that a performance like Copley's, fraught with expertise one wouldn't expect from such an inexperienced actor, that I'm quite confident with that bold statement.

The only other real star of this show is writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who crafts a simply ingenious story (with co-writer Terri Tatchell) and somehow makes this $30 million film look like a film with quadruple that budget. The best kind of special effects are the kind you don't notice, and this maxim is what District 9 is all about. You don't see this big, enormous ship hovering over Johanessburg and think it looks fake, or you don't see these prawns and think they look corny or overtly CGI. I was actually curious when I saw the film if they actually constructed costumes for all these prawns, because it just didn't have that CGI kind of look to it, but, in fact, the aliens were all done with actors in motion-capture suits with the visual effects and audio effects of their unique language done in post. The whole film, done in this pseudo-doc*mentary format, serves the film incredibly well, because you really are taken into the action. Blomkamp's direction and his post-production team's amazing proficiency does wonders for the film, almost to the point where you might forget that this is actually a work of fiction. I can only hope that director Neill Blomkamp takes his incredible precision and passion to whatever he does next and whatever that may be, I'll be the first in line to watch it.

District 9 is a wake-up call to Hollywood. With the studios crunching numbers, thinking about built-in audiences for remakes and sequels, fretting over which A-list star they can get for their next project, a film like District 9, with no stars in front of the camera and a crazy story about aliens in South Africa, of all places... this film should've been destined to fail... but it didn't. This film succeeded because it was the embodiment of everything that a large bulk of Hollywood hasn't been for the past few years: original, thought-provoking and driven by the story it has to tell and not the names of those who tell the story in front of or behind the camera.
We don't get a lot in the way of special features on this single-disc release, but the material we do get is high-quality all the way. We start off with 22 Deleted Scenes here, and most of these are doc*mentary-style that takes us through some of the procedures of MNU and some of the other goings-on inside D-9. One scene shows us one of the MNU agents coming across a cryogenic tank that the gangster Nigerians have used to freeze prawns that owe them money - kind of like a makeshift Jabba the Hut/Han Solo thing. Most of these are pretty short, maybe a few minutes long apiece, but there's some pretty cool stuff here. We even hear some stuff from South Africans talking about rituals they do that they believe will protect them from the aliens. There is a lot of stuff that delves into the backstory of this world where aliens have somehow settled over South Africa. We have interviews with some people involved with MNU that shed a bit of light on the prawn history and when we get into actual scenes with Sharlto Copley and others in the film, and it's interesting to see that there is essentially one guy that does the motion-capture for all the prawns with these grey body suits with the white dots. We also get some propaganda-type films with a scientist talking about the reproductive aspects of the prawns. Some of these deleted scenes are kind of dumb, but there is some really quite cool ones in here, although I can see why they didn't need all of these in the movie. Most of these are perfect for Deleted Scenes like this, that would've perhaps taken away from the actual movie, but are great for the DVD to give more background info. Great job here.

The only other feature we get is The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker's Log, which is split up into three chapters: Envisioning District 9, Shooting District 9 and Refining District 9, which breaks down into pre-production, production and post-production, essentially. The first chapter talks about how director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley worked on a short film together Alive in Joburg and how he had this idea and how it evolved into what District 9 was. Blomkamp also touches briefly on how the aliens sort of came to be floating over South Africa, in that there was a "virus" on the ship that killed off the upper echelon of this race of aliens and the ones who are left, are the ones who have no idea how to get back onto the ship.

The Shooting District 9 chapter talks about how down-and-dirty this shoot really was, with literally the filth of these slum locations and the gritty, handheld visual feel of the film. Blomkamp even said that they didn't really even have a proper video setup and he was watching stuff on the viewfinder of these handheld cameras, which is rather insane. We also get some nice stuff from Copley talking about the duality of his character, where he differentiates with his character's actions both when he knows he's on camera, filming something for MNU, and the regular cinematic-style stuff as well, which is pretty dang cool. Blomkamp also takes us on a little tour on one of the areas of MNU that houses all the weapons and the actual facility was used to house real South African weapons during the 80s... and he shows us that there are still some missiles there. Crazy.

The last part, Refining District 9, takes us through a lot of the post-production processes like sound design and how they went through making the sounds of the alien language, which is rather fascinating to me. They show how some of the sounds were made by simple techniques like just rubbing a pumpkin or a frog call and there are also a lot of other aspects of post-production and, essentially, some final reflections on the film itself. The whole thing is about 33 minutes long with all three chapters and it's a rather intriguing look into the making of one of the best films of the year.
The film is presented in the anamorphic widescreen format, in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The sound is handled through the Dolby Digital 5.1 format.
Nothing flashy here, but rather effective. The front cover boasts a shot of the humongous alien mothership with a No Humans Allowed sign in front of some barbed wire and a title card up top and a critic quote below. The back has two more critic quotes, a solid synopsis, three smaller images from the film, a brief special features listing and the billing block and tech specs. It works just fine for me.
District 9 is one of the few cherished surprises of the year. Although it boasts absolutely no recognizable cast members and the directorial debut of a filmmaker whose first film was famously sandbagged, this film triumphs in ways few films do, with ultimate popcorn thrills, an immersive story and perhaps the ultimate proof that originality isn't dead after all in Hollywood.

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