District 9 is the first fully-executed example of what the 21st Century blockbuster should be: the perfect combination of big-budget effects and lo-fi sensibilities. Although the shaky, handheld-camera technique has been noticeably in play in the mainstream since The Blair Witch Project, District 9’s director Neill Blomkamp weaves documentary techniques into the plot without coming across as gimmicky, instead telling a tense — and eventually emotional — story of a bumbling bureaucrat’s bad luck after trying to evict a ghetto filled with prawn-like aliens.
With a budget reported at $30 million, D9 still rivals the action and special effects of any recent big budget movie, which is only one of Blomkamp’s and producer Peter Jackson’s triumphs, after having the Halo movie fall apart on them in pre-production, allegedly due to studio infighting. Ultimately though, D9’s crowning achievement is having the potential to be a landmark film, heralding in a new style of blockbuster. But as unique as it is, there are still two unlikely big-budget alien invasion movies ingrained into its DNA.
Signs now seems to be a marker for when you can literally watch M.Night Shyamalan’s reputation turn from being our generation’s Alfred Hitchcock to a storyteller that thought it would be a good idea to conclude an ultra-suspenseful alien invasion with a spilled glass of water (which, sadly ,is actually a step below the alien-computer-virus device used in ID4.) What makes the anticlimax of Signs all the more frustrating was how brilliantly the suspense of the alien invasion was built. The most memorable scene of the movie – and I’d also argue one of the most memorable scenes of the last 10 years in film — has to be the first “reveal” of the aliens, seen through the lens of the network news, showing grainy footage of an alien walk by at a children’s birthday party. In one scene, theatergoers got a true feeling of what “War of the Worlds” must have played like all those years ago.
District 9 similarly uses footage from grainy security cameras and a documentary crew spliced to enhance the story of Wikus Van De Merwe – played by Sharlto Copley – to bring a sense of gritty realism to a genre that has been dominated by the exploding use of shiny, Big Budget CGI.
Despite the splatter and gore of the film, D9 also owes quite a bit to E.T. If there was a scene where the alien kid rode in a basket attached the mech-suit near the end of the movie, I think more people would agree, but replace Spielbergian suburbs with the simmering melting pot of Johannesburg, and you have the basic plot of authoritative jerks trying to stop a friendly alien from getting home, and the protaganist stuck in the middle. While D9’s unconventional setting brings in a bit more weight, referencing South Africa’s apartheid, there’s still no preachy message attached. Instead, as we follow a completely unsympathetic bureaucratic drone, we see the darkness of greed, war, as well as how we treat those most in need of help. Without beating the audience of the head, it’s not hard to find a message about what it is to be human – even when we’re at our most alien.
District 9 is a science-fiction movie that makes the entire genre seem full of shiny, new possibilities. It’s an action-movie with heart. It’s social commentary without being pretentious. In short, it’s what blockbusters should strive to be.
Sidenote: I was halfway through writing this when I stumbled upon a piece at Entertainment Weekly’s website that points out some more interesting homages and influences.