Already those who were awaiting Halo were excited, could this be a science fiction film that would show the studios behind the failed Halo attempt what they could have done? Well yes, but did they manage to pull it off? A story smaller in scope, scale and budget?
Taking pity upon them the South African government provide the aliens with a place to live in one of the slums of the city, originally meant as a stopping point, but soon growing into a walled and no go area for humans.
However tensions are rising between aliens and humans, and it has been decided to move the aliens outside of the city to a new camp.
To accomplish this a task force has been put together by the company who have been managing the aliens since their arrival, MNU. They will enter the slums and get the aliens to leave their shacks by whatever means necessary, but as the trailer says, District 9 holds many secrets, including the key to the aliens survival.
District 9 had a severe limitation from the moment it began, budget, but the film doesn't give you much opportunity for thinking about that, delivering excellent CG that blends in well with the reality of the world, and keeping a rough documentary feel to the majority of the first half. This use of a documentary type feel helps to pull you into the story and take you past the more fantastical parts of the film in the second half, a second half which feels much more like an action film, although a very good one at that.
From the trailers I'd seen, I was more convinced that the story was going to some epic tale that would open up into some science fiction conspiracy, but I was a little surprised to see the film play out in a more traditional and smaller scale than I first thought. Some would say a buddy film, a reluctant hero and his reluctant friend fighting for something no one else believes in. Still, it wasn't a bad thing, and there was still an epic feeling to it, however cleverly the film concentrates on the smaller aspects of a bigger story.
The film tells the story of how, amongst the worker aliens that seemed to make the majority of those in District 9, there are some more intelligent leaders, and one in particular has found the key to returning them to their home planet and has been desperately working hard to achieve it. However just as he is close, the humans arrive.
That's where Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, comes in. He's married the daughter of a big wig in the corporation that manages the aliens on Earth, and he's been put in charge of the clear out, and when he comes to issue the move order on the aliens and enters one if the houses he gets sprayed with some alien chemical, a chemical that begins to change him and sets him on a path that pushes him away from the humans and towards the aliens, becoming an unlikely hope and ally for them.
That's really how the plot plays out, and I found it a little disappointing that it missed out on some hugely intriguing aspects. The much wider look at the aliens is lost, we get a tiny glimpse of their structure, but they are made to be really pretty unintelligent and animal like, and I find that a shame, especially when we get the glimpse that there's a whole level of intelligence in the command structure within the alien race.
I do weigh that disappointment up with the fact that we're presented this intelligently, we're shown this through the story and not in some poorly developed plot device as we so often see in Hollywood. Instead of a voice-over explaining it, or someone speaking it out loud to camera, we discover it subtly through the plot development and it's up to us to make the connection. Not that a connection needs to be made for the story, you could just miss it and go without it.
Although the second half of the film does provide for some good action tied solidly in with the plot, I couldn't help but feel that it could have delivered something a little stronger had it kept with the style of the opening. As it was, it was good, but I did feel that the second half was delivering what was expected of it in order to gain favour with Hollywood and the audience. After all it had already pushed away from the standard stories enough.
A couple of smaller things that niggled at me were how the MNU people could understand the aliens clicking language but not the Nigerians that had taken home in District 9. It was also strange that they knew that these people were running an illegal trade that involved the aliens weaponry and never went in to shut them down. They had the strength to walk in and relocate all the aliens, but not to move out and control the Nigerians. That didn't sit too well with me and seemed to be a little out of the flow of things, but never too far that really harmed the film.
There were some great aspects of the story though, the relationship between the intelligent alien, named Christopher Johnson when he came to District 9, and De Merwe builds well and has some interesting turns to it. Sure there's the cheesy factor at the end, but there are some good roads getting there. What they also do is leave the realisation from De Merwe of what he really is doing and what he should be doing, till almost the last minute, until it's almost too late, and that does play out really well because it's not expected. In fact he takes a complete opposite turn from the way you expect it to. It's like a double bluff.
There's a moment where you think the story is going a certain way and the character of De Merwe comes back to the surface, his cowardice and human selfishness leaps to the fore and it really gets to the audience, well it got to me at least. I couldn't believe how angry I became with the character and with the direction the story took, and that's a great thing for a film to do, it got to me.
I also was rather taken with the addition of the scene in the MNU Headquarters underground research station where the alien Christopher is amazed at what the humans are doing to his species. Yet it's another aspect of the film that seems to be somewhat wasted. For a few moments we begin to wonder if his pairing with the human in trying to save his race might be called into question, and even for him to turn against the human, but he doesn't, and after a few moments of concern for the audience and for De Merwe in the film, he turns away and moves on.
It's strange because despite this and the way that De Merwe treats him later on in the film, you have to wonder just what this creature is thinking. They have so much weaponry with them and he's supposedly much more intelligent than a human, and they do show compassion for their fellow species and strong emotion, so why isn't there any feeling of anger or revenge inside him? It seems a little too quick that he dismisses this horrendous scene and the acts against his species just to head off and continue helping the human, and then later that he dismisses all the negative things that the human has done in the course of the film. Mind you, once again, you can assume that he remained close minded on his mission of returning with the item they have recovered and trying to save his people.
Action-wise though these scenes were very good, and the action sequences continue all the way to the very end. They make use of some great alien weaponry that often reminded me of Robotech or Alien and a huge amount of Half Life. They were well filmed and contained more strong CG that merged well with the reality around them and provided well for those in the audience who were more action orientated. I enjoyed the fact that the film wasn't all about the action and that it was a part of the story rather than the overriding plot line of many Hollywood action films.
The ending came together well and delivered what was expected, a little clichéd perhaps, predictable and slightly Hollywood, but it was a satisfying ending to the first part of a story. I say that because it is so obviously left open for another film and there is a feeling of seeing a chapter or an episode rather than a complete story, so there is a little lack of fulfilment from it.
District 9 is a very good film, it has more than just action to it with a strong story throughout, even if it does deliver a buddy film with something not that different from other science fiction films, there's some interesting messages about humans, humanity and South African apartheid.
It holds an interesting documentary style to the opening half with good use made of news footage. The effects are very good, although you wouldn't expect much else from Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films. The alien effects look real and stand up well against the humans in the same shot, they don't feel overlaid or that the actors are looking at tennis balls. It's definitely well filmed and edited, looks well above its budget and keeps the pace running on the story.
It's a good story too, although I've acknowledged a few moments where it's a little clichéd and lacking, for the most part it plays out well and delivers a few nice little twists. Yet it does leave you with a feeling of setting events up for a sequel.
Despite the feeling that this might be slightly over hyped, it's a great first film from Neill Blomkamp, and I do expect a lot more from the director, and I really hope that we get to see a sequel for District 9.