But here’s the catch. Stop watching the trailers. If a TV spot comes on, change the channel. If you see one of those “Humans Only” print ads, don’t look at it. You’re being lied to. The film you may think DISTRICT 9 is is not the film you will see in theaters (and trust me, you will want to see this film in theaters). Don’t worry, I’ll be walking on eggshells here, so feel free to continue reading why it isn’t those things and still remain unspoiled.
Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut is not a faux documentary nor is it filmed in the first person style, as the trailers make it out to be. Nor is it about the world’s reaction to aliens who have just arrived on Earth. DISTRICT 9 is a small, intimate story set within a fictional world in which aliens have landed 22 years ago. That last piece of information is crucial to shaping your notion of what this movie is. It is not a recount of what has already happened nor is it an invasion film.
Think of DISTRICT 9 as James Cameron’s ALIENS without there ever having been an ALIEN. It’s a very narrow story set within a very specific universe familiar enough to our own to feel grounded, but unpredictable enough to feel lethal for all involved.
And that comparison may just be the most impressive thing about D9: That an effects animator-cum-feature director like Neill Blomkamp can create a film that, in a matter of twenty or so introductory minutes, bridges the need for a world-building prequel and heads straight into streamlined, gung-ho science fiction action territory. Once he’s there, when he’s shown us the rules of the world he and co-writer Terri Tatchell have created, there’s no stopping him and his infectiously charismatic star Sharlto Copley from having a roaring, laugh-out-loud, gibbing-bodies-left-and-right, stomping-on-all-expectations kind of time.
And yet that comparison may also just be why I’m not blindly in love with D9. I like ALIEN more than ALIENS. I prefer to see the world built, the rules discovered instead of established; I don’t want to know the threat of the facehugger, I want to be there when the crew of the Nostromo are wondering what the hell those leathery pods are. Which isn’t to say that DISTRICT 9 explains each of its little secrets all at once, not by a long shot. It’s got a spacey jockey or eight of its own to hypothesize over and tons of tricks up its sleeve you won’t see coming, but it also spends no time pondering how the other 7.6 billion people on Earth are dealing with an extra-terrestrial presence. But there’s no way I can lodge ‘they’ve been here for 22 years’ as a complaint against Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script. There’s no questioning this is the story they wanted to tell and there’s no questioning that it’s a story I’ll be joining time and time again over the years, but because D9 is engineered on a small scale, inquisitive minds will beg for answers to questions the film never asks.
Fortunately you’ll be too busy wondering how it’s all going to end to worry about the social hierarchy of the aliens’ caste system. That boring stuff is for the chess club, Blomkamp’s A game is for the rockstar robotics team. It’s nerdy enough to withstand scrutiny, yet mainstream enough to be a total blast to watch. Careful eyes will widen with joy at the sight of some of the most astounding digital work to ever come out of WETA Workshop Imagine Engine. There are shots in DISTRICT 9 I was convinced were brilliant practical prosthetics work, but I was wrong. The work on the humans is real-world, the work on the aliens is completely computer generated.
Though credit for fooling me more than once doesn’t belong exclusively to the wizards at WETA Imagine Engine. Were it not for the brilliant performance of Sharlto Copley, the illusion could never stand. He’s on fire in every scene, never once giving a hint that dialog is improvised or that he’s a first time actor. His performance is intrinsically bonded to every aspect of the film, giving Copley and Blomkamp equal ownership over how unique of a movie this is as.
And if the world of cinema is lucky enough, in a few years time DISTRICT 9 will be looked at as the launching point of remarkable careers for those two men. Regardless of which way the ALIEN or ALIENS scale tips for you, D9 will be remembered as a great summer film. It doesn’t play into Hollywood paradigms. There’s no neon sign in the script that flashes, “Pay attention: This will come back later!” nor is there a sense of safety for the two instantly memorable characters at its core. DISTRICT 9’s is exciting in ways few movies this year have been. It (along with MOON) is the film equivalent of an ice-cold bottle of Snapple on a sweltering summer day. And if you don’t get that analogy, then you’ve never had a Snapple. It’s made from some of the best stuff our genre(s) has to offer and hearing that seal pop for the first time is a divine indulgence.