Out of the ashes of the fallen Halo movie comes Blomkamp’s District 9, a dramatic expansion on his previous attention-garnering short film Alive In Joburg. This is Blomkamp’s first real feature film, and it’s certainly a doozy. Borne of his experience in the segregated South African city of Johannesburg, District 9 acts as a reflection on the country’s past history of apartheid, projected forward about twenty or thirty years into the future, as migrant aliens have taken residence in the film’s namesake, a government controlled slum, not at all dissimilar to those still found all over South Africa at the moment. It’s interesting to note that there’s nothing made of the fact that nobody makes anything of the repetition of history here, but then perhaps that’s summed up in the words of one passerby: “We could understand it if they were maybe from another country, but they’re not even from this planet, you know?”
Initially, the film much resembles the short – documentary-esque, following a team of immigration officers charged with the task of forcing eviction on the shanty-town aliens, with much of the exposition taking the form of archival news footage and interviews. But this element gradually segues into nonexistence and the film becomes a more traditional dramatic narrative, here and there interspersed with interviews of past colleagues of the main character Wikus Van Der Merwe, who regard him as a ‘traitor.’ Here, Blomkamp adopts a dusty, muddy and broken down mise-en-scene, which is carried over even in the segments set in the MNU underground facilities. His use of handheld cinematography compliments this well, and unlike certain films of previous years, there is a real sense of composition to most of the shots – and, hanging ever-present in most of the outside photography, there’s the derelict alien ship behind it all – a weird, idiosyncratic mass that takes up most of the skyline above the cityscape.
There’s a little of the earlier Peter Jackson here as well – the film doesn’t refrain from splattering the camera every so often and especially in the last half-hour with the entrails of some poor soul, split in two by the alien weapons that so much of the plot centers around. But, unlike Snyder’s fluffy masochism (thanks Glenn), here this doesn’t feel hokey – particularly because it isn’t forcing itself onto a prior source material, but also because it fits well within the context of these things being alien weapons, and you could see the reason why the Warlord character Mambo and the South African government would hunger so for the ability to use them. You never really get the feeling that Blomkamp is some schlocky closet gore-hound.
And, I’m not sure that I’d agree with Roger Ebert that this is a space-opera simply because the third act is more kinetic than the previous two – that’s not to say that space-operas can’t be potent ground for social allegories, but I don’t really see how that fits, here. The label ‘space-opera’ implies an operatic story, which this film just isn’t. But, never mind. Myself, I’m already wondering what else Blomkamp has planned. While in certain places it becomes obvious that this is Blomkamp’s first film – in particular a moment in the last third, which reuses an exchange oft-found, “Just go,” “I won’t leave without you,” and so on almost word for word – it also indicates him as someone to keep an eye on, in much the same way as Moon did for Duncan Jones, earlier in the year.
Also, I rarely comment on the work of the actors in a film, but here an exception is needed. It’s hard to believe that this is Sharlto Copley’s first real role as an actor – the character of van der Merwe (the surname itself a common pejorative for Afrikaners) is wonderfully crafted, and his slow descent – or ascent, either way works – from a middling twitchy government bureaucrat who initially has no real problem at all ordering the roasting of a dozen of the alien’s eggs into a claw-handed prawn (the slang-term coined by the Nigerian gangsters who populate District 9, given the aliens resemblance to, well, giant lobsters) fugitive and fighter is astounding. And, even more so when you realize that most of the film prior to his ingesting the alien fluid is improvised, so he says:
“Basically, him and Teri [Tatchell, the screenplay’s co-writer] had a script, a structured story. So a scene would take place by Neill going these are the 2, 3, 4 things that have to happen, these are the beats in the scene, then I would improv around that. It was certain constraints as we went along. Continuity would become an issue, physical continuity once I’d committed to a decision. Especially that pre-transformation stuff was incredibly loose.”