It is a rare feat that an unknown filmmaker is first introduced to the public to take control of the reins to major motion picture with legions of fans. Fans who have both high expectations and also equally high trepidation about hwo their favorite intellectual property will be handled and adapted to the big-screen. The year was 2007 and Peter Jackson (who had been given producing duties by Microsoft, Fox and Universal Pictures) announced to the world that he had selected a young South African filmmaker by the name of Neill Blomkamp to direct the film adaptation of Microsoft’s hugely popular sci-fi action shooter, Halo. The reaction to this news was bewilderment, grumblings and major headscratching from fans and studio executives alike.
Who was Neill Blomkamp and what has he done of note to be given the reins to one of the largest and most popular video game franchises?
Peter Jackson definitely saw something in this young South African. While fans of the Halo game wanted Jackson himself to direct the film he decided to let this unknown take the job. To give a glimpse of what he was capable of and to prove to both fans and executives that he was the right man for the job, Blomkamp filmed three short films depicting live-action scenes of Halo to be released as part of the Halo 3 media ad-campaign blitz for its 2007 release. All three short films were dynamic and had a grittiness to it which definitely showed the young man had talent, but in the end it wasn’t enough to save the Halo film from being declared postponed then cancelled. Studio executives from both Fox and Universal (both had licensed the rights to release the Halo film for domestic and international release. They were also to help put up the $150million stated budget) wanted a higher percentage of gross profits from the film. Microsoft who was putting up a large share of the budget refused and studio politicking literally ended the film while pre-production by Blomkamp, Jackson and his WETA team were five months in.
What had become a major blow to the beginning of Blomkamp’s filmmaking career might be the very thing which puts him on the map as one of the brightest and most inventive filmmakers of his generation. With $30million dollars of his own money, Peter Jackson gave Blomkamp a second chance to make another sci-fi actioner, but this time do so independently and away from the control and interference of major studios from Hollywood. The film Neill Blomkamp ended up making after the cancellation of his Halo might just turn out to be the best film of the summer of 2009 and one of the best of the year. The film is District 9.
Born and raised in South Africa, Blomkamp’s experience growing up in the final throes of apartheid and the societal chaos which succeeded the end of minority white rule could be seen in the basic foundations of District 9‘s story (screenplay co-written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell). It is a story detailing an alternate historical event in world history when in the late 1980’s a massive alien spacecraft suddenly appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. This momentous event in human history soon turns into a worldwide “humanitarian” undertaking people soon discovered that the aliens who inhabited this spacecraft (numbering over a million) were not the all-conquering or benevolent beings as shown by Hollywood, but malnourish, sickly and aimless beings who appeared to be bipedal, barely humanoid looking crustaceans. Derogatively called “prawns” by the inhabitants of Johannesburg, these aliens spend the next 20 years of their existence on Earth housed in a heavily-policed and walled shanty tow and slum area in the city named District 9.
It is in this District 9 where most of the action of the film takes place as a plan by the government and it’s hired private corporation of Multi-National United to relocate these aliens to a more remote camp of District 10. A camp 200 kilometers away from the population center of the nation’s capital to the relief and delight of the population. In charge of this relocation program is one Wikus van der Merwe. A middling middle-manager within MNU who may have gotten this particular job for no reason other than being the husband to the daughter of MNU’s chief executive. Wikus van der Merwe appears in the early going of the film like a cross between Lumbergh of Office Space and Michael Scott of The Office. Wikus seems to relish and delight in his new-found authority leading MNU bureaucrats and their company private security teams in forcibly removing the aliens from their shanties. Wikus’ racist attitude towards the aliens is quite evident as he uses the derogatory name for the aliens (prawns) every chance he gets. It is during the inspection of a secret lab in one of the shanties where the film deftly switches from the first third of the film as a scifi allegorical study of South Africa’s (and most likely the world as a whole) racist apartheid past and into a Fugitive-like chase film which make’s up the middle third.
To say that what Wikus finds in the alien makeshift laboratory makes a profound impact on him is quite an understatement. Blomkamp shows not just Jackson’s influence as a director of horror, but also has quite a handle on the Cronenbergian aspects of the storyline. Blomkamp shows rather than tell through long-winded expositions what is happening to Wikus that suddenly made him the most wanted man in South Africa, if not the whole entirety of the planet. Wikus’ starts the final third of the film literally transforming from the nebbish and weasly character from the beginning into something of a reluctant hero, albeit for his own self-interest.
It is the final 20-30 minutes of the film where those audiences still on the fence about District 9 will probably end up finally getting hooked with the rest of the audience. Blomkamp has shown in the first two third of the film that he knows how to handle social commentary in a scifi story without being too heavy-handed and preachy. He’s also shown a knack for keeping a constant pace and adding to the tension which finally explodes in the last half hour of the film. It’s the pay off that action-flick fans had been waiting for and they won’t go away disappointed. Alien weaponry are finally put into play and we see just how effective they can be when used on humans. Bodies are literally blasted apart whether by lighting blasts or from high-powered rapid-fire guns.
Not lost from all the social and allegorical commentaries within the story and the rolelrcoaster ride of a finale is the fact that Neill Blomkamp has deft eye for creating a believable alternate reality for this film to inhabit. With the help of his cinematographer Trent Opaloch and a battery of Red One digital cameras, Blomkamp settles for a gritty and grainy look for the film. This gives the production a very documentary-like feel. They’ve also used to great effect the so-called “shaky-cam” technique to simulate a cinema verite look for the more chaotic scenes in the film. It is not a new way to film as films like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield plus the Bourne Trilogy. What this film was able to do which those films failed to some extent was to allow the shaky-cam effect not to distract too much. This is shaky-cam as if being handled by a professional combat filmmaker taking in a battlezone as it happens. While the first half of the film relies mostly on patched together scenes from news reports, official MNU company videos and video interviews of select individuals, the second half moves away from this mockumentary-style and into a more traditional narrative technique. It is easy to nitpick this change in techniques after the fact but Blomkamp’s chief editor in Julian Clarke makes it possible for a near-seamless transition from one film-style to the next without skipping a beat.
The peformances from a literal cast of unknowns (at least to Hollywood and those outside of South Africa) could easily have been the main weakpoint in District 9 but it turns out to not be the cast. Headed by first time lead actor, Sharlto Copley as Wikus, the film’s cast does a very good job of lending an air of realism and credibility to a fantastical story. Their performanaces are mostly understated except for the role of MNU security-team leader Koobus Venter as played by David James. While James played the role in its early stages as the usual no-nonsense military veteran the character soon turns into a major villain to hound Wikus in his flight. While this transformation wouldn’t be such a bad thing the overreaching and over-the-top performance by James turned Koobus into a caricature of a villain. One almost expected the man to cackle (at times he almost did) and bellow out the classic evil laugh. In the end, Copley’s performance as Wikus was the highlight of the film’s cast performance. In the beginning it is quite easy to detest this bookish and sycophantic functionary, but as we follow him throughout the film we see his transformation into something of a coward who must turn into a reluctant hero to serve his needs. Finally, we see him make a sacrifice which redeems him in the eyes of the audience.
It is not often that a film comes along which makes a major impact on a genre, especially from a filmmaker making his debut feature film. While not a huge blockbuster in terms of budget District 9 manages to outdo the usual tentpole event films from the major studios this summer. Budget constraints doesn’t keep the film from becoming a sweeping epic not seen since another low-to-midbudget R-rated scifi actioner that went by the title of Robocop. Like that film from the late 80’s, Blomkamp’s film manages to find a balance between saying something about his home country’s past racial and societal problems, but also give the scifi genre a frenetic, action-packed, kick-ass of an action film that doesn’t turn out to be silly, contrived or stale. Not everyone will enjoy this film as the best ever or even as the best of recent years, but it is hard to argue or dismiss the fact that District 9 is film which refuses to be pigeonholed into a particular type of film. It’s a message film and a scifi film. It’s also a film of body horror and a study of the human condition both its darker and better natures.
District 9 is a film that lived up to the hype surrounding it and surpassed expectations. This film also makes a star out of first-time director Neill Blomkamp. He will certainly be flooded by offers from the very major studios who doubted him during his aborted attempt to turn a major pop culture franchise into a film. It also validates the notion that a summer blockbuster doesn’t have to be dumbed down or stripped of its thrills to have both. Or that it has to have a budget in the hundreds of millions to make it look like one. A near-perfect film and one that should be the driving influence for the scifi genre for years to come.