District 9 – A Must See

So yesterday we had one of our mass movie outings to go see District 9.  Up until last Wednesday night I’ve seen the posters and I’ve read the tag-lines, but I haven’t really paid attention to it, until the Journo told me that it’s a South African director and it’s set in South Africa.

Well, immediately my interest was piqued and I zoomed on over to IMdb to read all about it.  In deed, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, born in Johannesburg, South Africa and studied visual effects in Canada.  He was slated to film a movie based on Halo, but the stakeholders (Microsoft was mentioned), couldn’t agree on the terms, so it fell through.  The financiers, however, then apparently gave him US$ 30 million and told him to make anything he wanted.

Back in the day he made a short called Alive in Joburg, which is what District 9 was borne from.  Pretty low key in comparison, but it was only a 6 minute short.  He was also in cahoots with Sharlto Copley, another prominent figure in South Africa’s not-yet-prominent movie industry. Sharlto was responsible, amongst other things, for shorts like 2001: A Space Oddity and Hellweek (about extreme animator training), both set in Cape Town.

Then the great minds got together and created District 9, which is now a block buster.  In the vein of low budget box office hits like The Blairwitch Project and Cloverfield, District 9 is filmed part in documentary style.  But before you think “oh, more pukable visuals”, the docu-movie style is blended with normal view and even CCTV cameras, so you don’t have to endure an entire movie of shaking visuals and unbelievable surely-he-would-have-dropped-the-camera-or-ran-out-of-battery moments. In fact, the blend is smooth and effortless and doesn’t distract from the story.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa and, according to the IMdb’s trivia, only the shack in which the main alien character lives was constructed – the others were all there already.  So aliens land on earth, and for a change they don’t do it above New York, but they choose humble Johannesburg.  Americans, as Hollywood have taught us, will shoot the crap out of any alien.  South Africans are much friendlier, and we carjack, so they break into the spaceship instead – there’s irony in that.

Long story short, temporary housing, ala South African squatter camp, is given to the aliens while the world decides what to do, until it becomes unbearable due to crime, violence and appalling living conditions and the government decides to relocate the 1.8 million aliens. Parallels with apartheid are rife and deliberate, but subtle to the uninformed. District 9 apparently is a play on District 6 – an actual housing situation from the apartheid era where the storyline was very similar, humans only a metaphore for whites only – if you’ve read the history of apartheid and the brutality of the police against activists, there will be more than just one hair-raising moment in District 9, and not because of human-on-alien violence either.

The unlikely hero of the story is Wikus Van Der Merwe and if you love South African accents, you’re going to love this guy. Obviously not the sharpest tool in the box, Wikus is appointed to lead the moving of the not-always-friendly aliens. Things go awry and the story gets interesting. Greed and hate fuels the story line.

The movie is multi-faceted. Those with no knowledge of or interest in South Africa’s past will still enjoy this movie as a sci-fi adventure. There’s plenty of action, people die and get hurt, it’s not unrealistic. There’s tons of special effects, but the way it was supposed to be, the CGI supports the story and isn’t the story (Transformers, GI Joe anybody?).

If you do know something about South Africa’s past, there are scenes from the movie that will have you thinking about it a little more.  The comments on the past and questions asked about the future – the reason why we can’t stop talking about apartheid – because like WWII we need to remember it so that it doesn’t happen again. Even if it is to aliens.

Like all great not-so-main-stream movies, District 9 relied heavily on viral marketing for it’s exposure.  MNU (Multi-National United) is the greedy corporate company tasked with moving the aliens (and getting their weaponry to work).  Visit their website as either an human (friendly, informative), or as an alien (commanding, alien script can be translated to English).  Also read an alien activist’s blog (MNUSpreadsLies.com) to find out more about how aliens are treated.

I really enjoyed District 9.  For everything I said above and for its obvious South Africaness.  I’m not sure how much the South African film industry can claim credit for this – all the special effects were created  by overseas companies, albeit with the involvement of South Africans – but it’s an awesome movie shot on my home soil with home-grown actors, and it rocks.

I’m going to go see it again.

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