District 9

Produced by Peter Jackson, “District 9,” an innovative and exciting sci-fi-thriller, set against the apartheid struggle in South Africa, announces the arrival of an extremely gifted filmmaker, Neill Blomkamp, a young, white South African writer-director who makes a stunning feature debut after creating some shorts.


Inventvely combining the thematic conventions of various genres and the stratgeic approaches of documentary, fiction, and even mockumentary, “District 9” is an original,varied work about political refugees, which works on a number of levels, the particular and historical, as well as the more metaphoric or allegorical; the tale could take place in every country, in which thee are inter-racial tensions and unwanted refugees.


“District 9” received a rapturous reception at San Diego's Comic-Con last month, where it world premiered, will be released by Sony nationwide August 14, 2009.  With strong critical support and favorable word-of-mouth (there's already a buzz due to the excellent trailer and poster) and Sony's savvy marketing campaign, “District 9,” easily one of the best features of this long, boring summer, could become a sleeper, appealing to younger and older demographics due to the effective blend of a thrilling sci-fi with, strong political overtones.  With some luck, it also could become a cult (midnight) movie.

In the first reel, it’s established that 20 years ago, a million of aliens made contact with Earth, when a space ship landed in downtown Johannesburg.  Predictably, the humans expected an hostile attack, or advances in technology, but neither event ever happened.  But instead, the aliens turned out to be refugees from their own home, now set up in a makeshift place in South Africa’s District 9, while the world’s more powerful nations (read the U.S.) take their time and deliberate over the fate of the victimized residents.


However, endurance and patience have their limits, too.  And so, the control over the aliens is contracted out to Multi-National United (MNU), a greedy private company uninterested in the aliens’ welfare.  MNU is promised huge profits if they can put to practice the aliens’ powerful weaponry. The challenge, however, is not as easy as it sounds, and so far, all the efforts have failed, which means that the activation of the weaponry still requires alien DNA.


Tensions rise between the aliens and the humans, who find themselves in a peculiar co-existence, one that brings the worst in both groups, reaching a boiling point when MNU field agents begin evicting the non-humans from District 9 to a new camp.  Turning point occurs, when the protagonist, MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe (well played by Sharlto Copley) contracts an alien virus that begins changing his DNA. 


In a manner recalling some of Hitchcock’s heroes, Wikus quickly becomes a hunted (and haunted) man, who possesses invaluable knowledge, holding the key to unlocking the secrets of alien technology.   An ambiguous screen hero, the ostracized and friendless Wikus realizes that the only place left for him to hide is District 9.

Soon, the contaminated Wikus is chased by various forces of “order and disorder,” by the MNU as well as by a group of Nigerian criminals and witch doctors.  Faced with limited opportunities, he takes refuge with an intelligent creature named Christopher Johnson (voiced by Jason Cope), and his young kid, Little CJ.  (Incidentally, the writers rather shrewdly give all the aliens human names, imagining the re-naming that would be done when admitting aliens to our planet, a device that makes them individually recognizable).  Establishing the kind of surrogate family unit that would make Spielberg proud, the trio must find ways to reverse Wikus' alien metamorphosis and ultimately assist the refugees return to their planet.

Blomkamp has spent his youth under the oppressive system of apartheid, which dominated South Africa for over three decades, ending in 1994.  As a result, he informs the film with “inside” historical details and political background that enrich his text and subtext.  The movie also benefits immensely from the sponsorship and assistance of his producer, the visionary director Peter Jackson (the Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” franchise), for whom Blomkamp serves as assistant, absorbing some of the visual and special effects Jackson is known for.


It's a testament to Blomkamp's skillful approach that he blends successfully a sci-fi creatures tale that's scary (but not too gory by the the genre's current standards) with a satirical docu-mockumentary, imbued with sufficient dark humor to balance the tone of the film into something more accessible and enjoyable than it could have been in the hands of another director.


The genesis of “District 9,” which is penned by Blomkamp and his writing partner Terri Tatchell, goes back to a short, low-budget mockumentary, “Alive in Jo’burg,” which he had shot in a Johannesburg shantytown.  In this short, Blomkamp introduced intergalactic aliens to the cultural mix of Johannesburg, one of Africa’s most dynamic cities.


Refreshingly, it’s hard to tell from the look and shape of “District 9” Blomkamp’s background (he cut his teeth as a visual effects artist and director of music videos and commercials). In this most impressive debut, he has deftly created a film that displays original vision and unique storytelling, drawing inspiration from classic sci-fi films of the 1950s as well as the Johannesburg of his youth (Blomkamp was born and raised there before relocating to Canada).  

“District 9” breaks ground, showcasing an exciting new director with already remarkable skills for a subtle mise-en-scene, brisk pacing, suspense-building without too much manipulation, and inventive use of special effects without distracting from the narrative and its emotional power.



Peter Jackson presents in association with TriStar Pictures and Block/Hanson a Wingnut Films Production.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. 

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. 

Produced by Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham. 

Co-Producer: Philippa Boyens. 

Executive Producers: Bill Block and Ken Kamins. 

Co-Executive Producers: Paul Hanson and Elliot Ferwerda. 

Director of Photography: Trent Opaloch. 

Production Designer: Philip Ivey. 

Editor: Julian Clarke. 

Music: Clinton Shorter; music supervisor, Michelle Belcher.