District 9 - Theater
AndyO review - * * * *
It's pretty rare that a movie comes out of nowhere and surprises audiences the way District 9 did. In this age of "event" movies that you hear about a year in advance, District 9 quietly appeared at the end of summer and blew audiences away. Three weeks after its release, it's still a trending topic on Twitter and staying in the top 5 at the box office. No small feat in this age of movies that come and go in one week.
In District 9, an alien spacecraft -- as huge and menacing as the ships in Independence Day -- arrives over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa. After nothing happens, humans open up the ship and find insect-like aliens -- afraid and starving. The aliens are moved to a holding area in the city called District 9.
Twenty years later, the human citizens of Johannesburg have grown tired of sharing their city with the aliens (referred to derisively as "prawns"). The prawns are being shipped out of town to another "District," far away from Johannesburg. The person responsible for managing this effort is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who works for Multinational United (MNU). Wikus is a bumbling bureaucrat, who's landed this job thanks to marrying an MNU official's daughter.
Wikus and his armed motorcade drive into District 9 and start knocking on doors, asking prawns to sign their "eviction" notices. Things get interesting when Wikus is sprayed with an oil-like substance that starts to mutate his body into one of the prawns. Where the story goes from here is what makes District 9 so original and breathtaking. Let's just say I didn't get up to use the bathroom.
The story behind the production of District 9 is also fascinating. First-time feature director, South African Neill Blomkamp, was working with Peter Jackson on the Halo movie when the plug was pulled. Jackson was so impressed with Blomkamp, he told him to write a script for something else and he'd find the financing.
Blomkamp wrote a script that could take advantage of some of the development he'd already done for Halo. This becomes even more clear when you watch the live-action promo trailer he made for the video game release of Halo 3.
One other thing about the film is it only cost $30 million. After seeing it, you won't believe it. I didn't.
As I watched District 9, I found myself comparing it to Star Wars--mostly, I think, because of how surprised I was with it. But later, when I read more about it, I found other comparisons. Star Wars was also made for relatively little money ($10 million in 1977). George Lucas knew how to take that money and make it look like $50 million. He hired unknown actors (except for Sir Alec Guinness), and put all the money into the sets and the special effects.
Like Lucas, Blomkamp put all the money on the screen. In an interview with Boston.com, he said he kept the costs down by doing the following:
- He hired one of his friends to play the lead role (Sharlto Copley). ("We had no $15 million, $20 million star to pay. So that eliminates that expense.")
- He knew how to accomplish the effects shots with no research and development ("Because of my background, I know what I can get away with. If we had done R&D [research and development], it would have been $50 million right there.")
- He shot it in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, Chiawelo. He hired locals as extras. ("These were seriously impoverished people. Destitute people. The township alone had 70,000 people. But if you hire different groups each day, you get that money into the community.")
All of this is interesting to those who study filmmaking, but it doesn't really matter. District 9 is a great movie regardless of how much it cost, or how it was made. It will surely join the canon of Sci-Fi films and make Blomkamp a star of a director. Whether he stays in this position depends on his next film. I, for one, can't wait to see it.