District 9

September 7th, 2009

Wow, what a great film. Probably the best big-budget sf film I’ve seen since … erm … have there been any other good ones recently? Although the budget, at some $30 million, was pretty paltry by modern Hollywood standards, it certainly looks and feels big budget, which just goes to show, as if it needs doing yet again, that imagination is a lot more important than money. What a shame I have neither…

Aliens have arrived on earth, not in some glistening superstructure over Washington but in a mountain of floating junk over Johannesburg. They have neither attacked nor made dignified contact, but instead been interned in a giant slum (more than a little reminiscent of apartheid-era townships) where they have become addicted to cat food and are preyed upon by gangsters and profiteers while a sinister multi-national experiments on them in an attempt to unlock the secret of their technology. Pencil-pushing company man Wikus is given the task of evicting the “prawns” from the ghetto and moving them to a new one, but it isn’t until he starts to mutate into one that he develops some understanding for their unfortunate position in human society…

A lot of its success for me is down to the structure and editing, which is frakking brilliant, seamlessly integrating faux-documentary interviews, pretend news footage and more traditional dramatic sequences into a smoothly flowing whole which grips right away and never lets go, managing to combine the immediacy and believability of documentary with the immersion of traditional drama. It has some great CGI on the aliens, and their weaponry in particular, a great central performance from Sharlto Copley as Wikus (most of his dialogue apparently improvised on location), and some great action sequences. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s clever, it’s exciting, it’s sometimes horrifying and occasionally even affecting, and above all it’s very entertaining.

You could point to some weaknesses – a few details of the plot seemed a bit creaky, apart from Wikus the human characters were pretty one dimensional (voodoo-obsessed black gangsters, profit-obsessed white company men, “I just love killing prawns!” cackles the gung-ho paramilitary villain). The crazy action sequence towards the end was maybe a little drawn out with a few too many people exploded by alien weaponry (amazing the first time, less so the hundredth), and the second half is definitely a lot less inventive than the first (though it’s still done very well). But the main criticism I’ve seen is that the film doesn’t necessarily follow through on the allegorical aspects, and I think to concentrate on its supposed real-life message (or the failure of said) is somewhat to miss the point. Which for me is that this was just a superb action sci-fi film, gripping from the first frame to the last, and brilliantly clever and inventive, not so much in its politics and philosophy, as in its design, structure, editing and acting. To me it’s a massive success not so much in the territory of Blade Runner as in the territory of Total Recall or Robocop. Quality, commercial, science fictional entertainment, but with some sharp thinking and a little social commentary behind the explosions.

9/10, and I’m not far from giving it the extra point, either…

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on September 7th, 2009.

8 comments so far

  • Erik says:

    Cool 🙂 I'll catch distRict 9 soon. Inglourious Basterds first, tho 🙂

    But what's this about you having no imagination?

  • Iain says:

    I totally agree with you Joe. District 9 is a fantastic sci-fi movie. I had a grin spread across my face that The Cheshire Cat would have been proud of when Wikus and the exo-suit went into action.

    My wife was so keen though. I have a distinct feeling that The time traveller's Wife may well be the next movie outing. God help me…

  • Simas says:

    I loved first 30 min. They’re epic, but after… Well it became a standard blockbuster, like “Transformers”. It looks like they were short on ideas how to take an advantage of such grate style and story.

    “Inblourious Basterds”, well that’s epic 🙂

  • I loved D-9 tremendously. For me, I never grew bored with watching the bodies explode, plus I felt the film was effective in stirring with our emotions.

  • physikant says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, i'll check it out when it hits the cinemas tomorrow (Germany :-))

    Have a look over at ferretbrain.com, where they are saying:
    '…we're talking Ray Feist, not George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie …'

    Three cheers for Joe 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Agree, really enjoyed this one. I think not having messages pushed at me made me think about it more strangely enough. Very brave to put it in S Africa too! Great performance by the lead actor as well.
    Big budget Sci-fi wise, I confess I enjoyed Star Trek as a big screen fun film.

  • "Have a look over at ferretbrain.com, where they are saying:"

    Oh, they're being nice about Joe. Sort of.

    Actually, that very criticism they level at Feist in that part (about Crydee) is rather spectacularly disproven on a far vaster scale three books later.

  • Elfy says:

    Bloody great film! Sharlto Copley deserves some sort of award or nomination, but he probably won't get one. I loved the very human relationship between the young alien and his father.
    I may have seen a different print to Joe, though, because the one I saw was called District 9.

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