9 Reasons You Have To See District 9

After months of anticipation, alien thriller District 9 is finally touching down in cinemas.

We've seen it, we like it, and we recommend you check it out.

Need a reason? How about nine of 'em? Beware of minor spoilers, but we've largely stayed away from major plot points...

1. You'd Be Supporting Visionary Filmmaking

While D9 might have the trappings and marketing support of a big studio film, in reality it's a lot closer to co-writer/director Neil Blomkamp's vision that most focus group approved, test-marketed studio movies.

It doesn't hurt that Blomkamp had Peter Jackson and his team backing him, but it led to the director getting to make the film he wanted, not what some studio exec thought might sell best across the middle of America.

Star Sharlto Copley (more on him later), who met a teenaged Blomkamp when he gave him one of his earliest jobs, saw something in him from the start. "He was going to be the next James Cameron or Spielberg. That was my personal, little opinion. So, on the one hand, I have to say that it's not particularly surprising."

Blomkamp credits Jackson and co with a lot of what makes the final film work: "It’s much more than just saying, 'Go and do what you want.' It’s 'Can I put a guy in the movie who’s never acted before, but I think he can carry the lead role?' There’s no way that would have happened if he wasn’t producing it. So he said 'Yes.'

"And then, 'Can they keep South African accents? And they’re thick accents.' Yes.'

"So that is probably the single biggest thing, is just the fact that he allowed it to happen. And then on a day-to-day basis, when we were writing the script, (co-writer) Terri Tatchell and I would have meetings with him and Fran, and Philippa Boyens honing the script, and they were giving us input, and helping us really shape that."

Next: It has a brain


2. It Has A Brain

We've been awfully short on thoughtful science fiction this year - while Star Trek had some decent ideas, it focused on the ride more than the concepts.

And don't get us started on the brain-dead spectacle of Transformers: ROTFL.

The best sci-fi - like Blade Runner and its ilk - has a pulsing intelligence behind it, something driving it other than the sales of toys and other merchandising.

District 9 is definitely a throwback to that sort of film, while staying away from preachifying.

"I really wanted the film to feel as real as possible, but I think if you spoon-feed people every piece of detail, it makes it less real," explains Blomkamp.

"It just feels like a Hollywood spoon-feeding festival, as opposed to if you throw the audience into the middle of it, so they’re kind of trying to figure out what’s going on. I was okay with how much wasn’t explained."

Next: It's still full of action


3. It's Still Full Of Action

Yes, while District 9 has a solid, intellectual core, it never forgets the action.

This is a film where a small war breaks out between an oppressed group and the people who loathe and distrust them.

And when things go badly wrong for Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the plot kicks the action up several notches.

As Blomkamp switches from the mock-doc format (see page 9), he throws the visual trickery into overdrive, with some impressive shots, nail-biting suspense and even fast-paced editing (though not so distractingly quick as to approach the likes of Michael Bay.

The camera rolls, ducks and weaves as Wikus goes on his life-altering adventure, making sure you stay with him for every moment.

To avoid big spoilers, we won't go into what happens when some of the aliens' weapons are finally unveiled (if you've seen the trailer, you've seen it happen) but suffice to say it's a lot of fun.

And to Blomkamp's credit, the vast majority of the action is driven by character. These are not set pieces for the sake of having something go boom - every moment springs from the needs of the plot.

"The way I approached the action is the same way I approached the whole film," says Blomkamp. "Right from the beginning, the idea was to juxtapose the fantastic and the mundane. This crazy science fiction is placed in a usual, every day situation. It's also presented with an everyday paintbrush. It's not glossy, over-the-top and Hollywood per se."

And there will be blood. "I knew right from the beginning that I wanted it to be violent. A few months after we started, I knew a dark satirical direction mixed with something that felt real would be the best way to go.

"Don't make it too serious. Once I knew that there was an element of satire and a lot of violence, meat explosions seemed like the direction to go in."

Next: The trailer's not full of spoilers


4. You Haven't Seen Every Good Bit In The Trailers

So many films these days want to tell you the entire story in two minutes' of what should be a tease. Yes, romantic comedies, we're looking at you.

But thanks to some savvy marketing from the studio, approved by Jackson and Blomkamp, District 9's trailers have provided just enough to hook us in while also leaving enough on the table that, if you stay away from spoilers, you'll find plenty more to enjoy.

"I do think that it’s always okay to show too little," is Blomkamp's opinion. "People will still be interested. So why show too much?"

Take a look above.

Next: The lead is great


5. Sharlto Copley Is A Star In The Making

Despite having known Neill Blomkamp for years, Copley hadn't harboured any thought that he'd end up even appearing in District 9, let alone playing the lead.

He specialises in producing and directing TV and short films and while he's occasionally been in front of the camera, he never saw his destiny in acting.

Talk about a duck to water, though... “I suppose I feel very natural as an actor," he laughs. "It was a very easy, effortless process, if I’m honest about it.

"I hadn’t acted professionally ever before. I had done… I could do accents. I wasn’t pursuing it as a career in any way but I was comfortable with characters, messing around as a businessman or as a producer. I was always being different characters while I was working. I just didn’t see myself as an actor.”

But when Blomkamp was working on District 9, and asked Copley to help workshop the main character, the director quickly saw that he'd found his man - and Peter Jackson agreed, even if it was physically demanding and mentally exhausting for the lead. "It was like flowing downhill with water and every now and then hitting a rock, but you know you’re gonna get to the bottom."

Plus, like Borat, the vast majority of the scenes were improvised. "All of my dialogue, all of my actual lines are improvised. There's a script but Neill works within a structure. 'This is what needs to happen in the scene – go there, evict the guy, pull the guy outside, go inside and see the computers.'"

When met with Copley at Comic-Con in July, the difference from the character to the man who plays him was eerie. While Wikus is a nervous, eager-beaver bureaucrat who can't believe his luck when he's assigned the task of moving the aliens on, Copley the man is more like a rock star in person - albeit a modest, thoughtful one.

The vast gulf between the two makes you appreciate his work all the more.

Next: The aliens are awesome


6. You'll Enjoy The Prawn Cocktail

The lobster/insect-like aliens are labelled Prawns by their disgusted human overseers, but they're a lot more than just stereotypes.

"I thought with the aliens, you’d think, 'I don’t want to sit next to that on the bus, they look insane, they look barbaric,'" says the director.

"And then by the end of the film, you’ve done a 180 on your perception of them. And that’s why their design reflects that. They are gross. They are insect-like, which represents this sort of hive-structure society that they come from, and then they have a human sort of geometry to their face and eyes, so that at some point in the film, you can feel that there’s a sentient creature behind those eyes."

He's certainly pulled that off - despite one of the main leads in the film created with CG, it's based on the performance of Blomkamp pal Jason
Cope, so it not only has a human soul underneath, but offered a proper reference for Copley to act against.

The results speak for themselves.

Next: The visuals rock


7. The Movie Boasts Real Visual Power

Harnessing the talents of effects houses including Weta and Vancouver's The Embassy, Blomkamp has fashioned a look for the film and its otherworldly inhabitants that's both striking and realistic.

While there are seven-foot-tall aliens wandering about, all created via the magic of CGI, they never feel like effects - they always seem real. Well, as real as aliens can.

But the striking solidity of the characters is what hits you - you totally believe that they're walking about, interacting with Copley's Wirkus and others and that they're living, breathing, emoting creatures.

Compare that to the shonky, cheap-looking CG found in the likes of G.I. Joe, which had a much heftier budget (and, let's face it, didn't spend money on an A-list cast).

"There was a desire to return to believability," says Copley. "Neill's put that awe back. 'Let's make it feel like realistic sci-fi.'

"The emotion is able to start coming back into the work. People got carried away with 'look what these computers can do...'"

Next: The setting is different


8. The Setting Is Crucial

By now, we've seen a hundred movies set in various locations across America - as one of the jokes in CG 'toon Monsters Vs Aliens runs, it's "the only country UFOs ever seem to land in."

But Blomkamp's creative choice to set this film in South Africa makes for a startlingly different experience at the cinema, and we don't just mean because of its real-life bubbling racial tension.

Sure, some might be put off by the heavy South African accents, but is it any more challenging than some of the crazier US drawls?

"In my opinion, the film doesn’t exist without Joburg, says Blomkamp. "It’s not like I had a story, and then I was trying to pick a city. It’s totally the other way around.

"It’s that when I got to Canada, in my 20s, I started to get more and more and more interested in Johannesburg, which must have been because I grew up there, but separate to that, it became this insane sociopolitical interest of mine.

"I actually think Johannesburg represents the future. My version of what I think the world is going to become looks like Johannesburg. Every time I’m there, it feels like I’m in the future, so I was just very, very interested in the city.

"And then when my short film Alive In Joburg (upon which District 9 is based) happened, I thought, 'What about if I just put science fiction into this? I’d love to see what that is.'  So the whole film grew out of a love-hate relationship with Johannesburg, really."

Next: Mock-dock style is a treat


9. The Mockumentary Style Works

Starting out looking more like something you might see on Panorama - or Ricky Gervais' world in The Office, the movie's initial documentary style is the perfect way for audiences to be introduced to the world of District 9.

It helps that Copley's Wikus is the perfect, stammering host, forging a connection with the audience - no matter whether you sympathise with his situation or hate his breathing guts - that helps later scenes.

The “news” footage and interviews give parts of the movie a sense of grounding in the actual world that is sometimes hard to shake. And it also allows for Blomkamp to craftily layer in reams of exposition so you know all you need to know about the situation before the main narrative kicks in.

That said, once the second half kicks into gear, District 9 shifts away from the format, but doesn't sacrifice anything for that.

It's a testament to Blomkamp's ability that he can segue almost seamlessly from one style of filmmaking to another and still bring the audience along for the ride.

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