I went to a press screening this morning for the new sci-fi flick District 9. In a summer of crappy action films - I'm looking at you, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - and megahyped sequels along comes this movie, with nobody you ever heard of in the cast and a cryptic advertising campaign, and, the biggest sin for blockbuster season... it's an indie film!
District 9 rose out of the ashes of the ill-fated big screen version of Halo. Neill Blomkamp, the films director, directed a few Halo shorts and was tapped to direct the feature film version of the popular Microsoft video game, but five months into pre-production, the movie collapsed. Peter Jackson, who was producing the film, instead had him adapt one of his short films Alive in Joburg into a feature. Personally, I have zero interest in a movie about a grossly over-rated video game, and after watching District 9 - and seeing what a truly amazing directorial debut it is - Halo collapsing is the best thing that could have happened.
District 9 is a sci-fi flick, but like most good science fiction, the movies themes are torn from the present. This movie is really about race and xenophobia. Blomkamp, who's based out of Vancouver but grew up in South Africa, sets the film in Johannesburg. In a recent interview, he
spoke of his desire to set a sci-fi story in the world he knew growing up; but I suspect the setting has more to do with Apartheid then it does geography. The movie tells the story of Aliens that are "trapped" on earth; their mothership is stuck, hovering over the city for decades. Instead of a hostile attack; or a brotherhood and a sharing of technologies, instead the aliens are essentially refugees. Ultimately, as the world's leaders argue about what do with them, the aliens are forced into internment camps in South Africa where they live in squalor under the boot of the oppressive government. Blomkamp does an excellent job of raising questions without getting preachy; and I suspect as a native of South Africa, he had plenty he wanted to say on the subject, but he lets the audience, for the most part, arrive at their own conclusions. He never gets heavy handed as a story teller and does a great job of pacing the movie as well as balancing the social commentary with the action of the movie.
As I mentioned earlier, this movie started out as an "indie" before eventually picking up a distribution deal. This is baffling because this looks like a $90 million film (though it was apparently made for closer to $30 million.) The film is literally wall-to-wall special effects, but the CGI is never distracting from the story (like it almost always is for me) because they are simply incredibly well done and they are always there for the story. Also worth noting is the performance of the lead actor Sharlto Copley. I'd never heard of him heading into the screening, but he delivers a fantastic performance as a field operative tasked with relocating all of the "illegal aliens" from District 9 to a new camp. Copley, a South African native who is a childhood friend of Blomkamp and had no previous screen acting experience, appeared in some test footage, and impressed Peter Jackson enough that he okayed him playing the lead role in the film. This really is the anti-blockbuster. It's written, directed and starring people you've never heard of, made for a tiny budget (relatively speaking for these kinds of movies) and set in South Africa. This film would never get made in Hollywood. They would never go for the no name cast, they would force the film to be set in a US city, and, of course, they'd hire a legion of hacks to "re-write" the script over and over again until it was "commercial" enough. That begin said, t's loaded with special effects, amazing action sequences and a really compelling story. I think this movie will do big business.
This is not only a truly great sci-fi film, but it's also an exciting debut for Neil Blomkamp. He's already revealed that his next project will likely be another a Sci-Fi flick that he's developing that he described as being "very unique." Count me in.
Check out his short film, Alive in Joburg that inspired District 9 right here