18 March 2015

Revisiting District 9

When District 9 hit in 2009, a lot of people assumed that we had a new science fiction visionary entering the world of cinema. It was, at the time, a fair enough assumption - audiences hadn't really seen that kind of aesthetic applied to a sci-fi story in years, and the story being told was original, interesting, and had the kind of social commentary needed to create a classic film, a deeper (although admittedly, rather heavy handed) meaning underneath the story.

Now that Chappie has made everyone revisit their pre-conceived notions of Neil Blomkamp (and you can read my full review of Chappie here), I decided to go back and take another look at District 9, the film that catapulted Blomkamp into the spotlight as the supposed saviour of science fiction back in 2009.

Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, District 9 follows Wikus Van De Merwe, employee of the MNU, a weapons company that are also in control of the District 9 slums. Wikus is charged with leading a task force as they serve eviction notices to the inhabitants of District 9, an alien race known locally as "prawns" that are stranded on Earth after their mothership broke down directly above Johannesburg. Unfortunately for Wikus, he ends up getting a strange alien substance on himself that begins to slowly turn him into one of the "prawns".

It's interesting being able to look back at District 9 and seeing how little Blomkamp has changed as a writer/director since his first feature film. District 9, Elysium and Chappie all follow the exact same basic story structure, pretty much to the letter. I can predict the basic plot of Blomkamp's upcoming Aliens 2 already - our protagonist will be altered in some way that makes them the target of a large, oppressive organisation, who send a militaristic hard-ass to hunt them down. There will most likely be an interested third party who shows up just before the finale to throw a spanner in the works.

This is Blomkamp's bread and butter, his baseline structure for telling a story, and it isn't the only constant when it comes to his films. Both Chappie and Elysium borrow themes, character archetypes and visuals from their predecessor, which wouldn't be an issue if District 9 hadn't of already done it, but better. It's this constant self-plagiarism while failing to expand or improve on what has came before that leads me to believe that the reason District 9 worked was because of Peter Jackson, who produced District 9. I don't know how much Jackson actually had to do with the making of District 9, but the lack of his name on both Elysium and Chappie leads me to believe that his role was a very important one in making District 9 the film it is.

Regardless of what came after, District 9 still stands on it's own as an interesting, well made, but over rated science fiction film. Wikus remains the most well written protagonist of Blomkamp's films, his character arc the linchpin that holds District 9 together in it's more outlandish moments. Sharlto Copley really sells the character to us, successfully turning a spineless bureaucrat who commits some fairly heinous acts into a genuinely sympathetic and believable character over the course of the film - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that the best thing to come out of Blomkamp is Copley, who has consistently been the most entertaining part of Blomkamp's films, and is an actor I am dying to see in more varied, non-Blomkamp films going forward.

The parallels between the treatment of the "prawns" and the South African apartheid are obvious from the opening moments of District 9, which wastes no time in explaining the history of the world and the nature of the "prawns" to the audience in the form of a fake documentary, a great way of delivering exposition without breaking any sense of immersion that the film is trying to build. It's an impressive piece of word building that the rest of the film leans heavily on, periodically returning to the documentary style footage in order to keep the audience invested in the sense of realism that it helps create. Between this and some excellent pacing and focus (two things I never thought I'd hear myself say about a film Peter Jackson was involved in), District 9 allows the audience to really immerse themselves in this world and these characters to a degree that I doubt Blomkamp will ever successfully recreate.

Even if District 9 does end up being the best film with Blomkamps name on it, that's just fine. Because what Blomkamp has done is proved that there is a market for hard science fiction, which means that we will be seeing more sci-fi films in the future. And yeah, there will no doubt be some Chappie's, some Jupiter Ascending's in the mix, low quality films that will have some people doubting a genre's worth - but there will also be some Ex Machina's and some Edge of Tomorrow's just waiting to blow you away. Variety truly is the spice of life, and the same principle applies to cinema - so if all Blomkamp has managed to do since District 9 is get other sci-fi films funded? I'm OK with that.

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