Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe
Jason Cope as Grey Bradnam – UKNR Chief Correspondent
Nathalie Boltt as Sarah Livingstone – Sociologist
Sylvaine Strike as Dr Katrina McKenzie
John Summer as Les Feldman – MIL Engineer
William Allen Young as Dirk Michaels
Nick Blake as Francois Moraneu – CIV Engineer Team
Jed Brophy as James Hope – Police Officer
Louis Minnaar as Piet Smit
Vanessa Haywood as Tania Van De Merwe
Marian Hooman as Sandra Van De Merwe
Vittorio Leonardi as Michael Bloemstein – MNU Alien Civil Affairs
Mandla Gaduka as Fundiswa Mhlanga
Johan van Schoor as Nicolas Van De Merwe
Stella Steenkamp as Phyllis Sinderson – MNU Alien Relations
David James as Koobus Venter
Kenneth Nkosi as Thomas
Hlengiwe Madlala as Sangoma
Siyabonga Radebe as Obesandjo’s Lieutenant
Melt Sieberhagen as Anton Grobler
Andre Odendaal as Mike Van Kerland
Nick Boraine as Craig Weldon
Robert Hobbs as Ross Pienaar
Sibulele Gcilitshana as Ü Günters Woman
Mahendra Raghunath as SABC Anchor Person
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Impressive for what first-time director Neill Blomkamp has done with a limited budget and for its unique take on the alien invasion genre, “District 9” could have been better if it had remained focused on the main character rather than trying to show off a variety of filmmaking styles with a lot of flashy CG FX-driven action.
District 9 is the area in Johannesburg, South Africa where the aliens who arrived on earth 28 years ago have been sequestered, and government agent Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been assigned the job to evict and relocate them to a new camp. When he’s sprayed with a mysterious alien substance, Wikus goes through a transformation that will forever change his relationship with his alien subjects.
There’s little question that 2009 will be remembered as the year where the science fiction genre once again achieved the respect it deserves, not only thanks to large scale blockbusters like J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” but also thanks to a number of new independent filmmakers who haven’t allowed their vision to be watered down by their limited budget. If Duncan Jones (“Moon”) is the Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott of the Class of ’09 and Sophie Barthes (“Cold Souls”) is “Sleeper”-era Woody Allen, then clearly South Africa’s Neill Blomkamp is Paul Verhoeven. There’s no other explanation for the amount of people blowing up in “District 9” than someone who spent much of their childhood watching “Starship Troopers” or “Total Recall” or “RoboCop.” Then again, Blomkamp’s debut does maintain the intelligence of those other filmmaking debuts, taking a similar approach as the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to use the sci-fi genre to explore very real issues of prejudice and tolerance. It’s probably not a coincidence that both of those issues have played a large part in the history of Johannesburg, where Blomkamp decided to set his debut.
The world is introduced through a series of interviews and news segments on how a ship-full of aliens came to earth 28 years ago, but in present day, when the government needs to relocate them that job falls to desk jockey Wikus van der Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley. We’ve already heard mention of Wikus through his wife and family talking about him in the past tense, hinting at what’s to come, and we finally meet him as a documentary crew follows him from one hovel to the next trying to politely evict the scavenging aliens, often referred to negatively as “prawns” for their crustacean-like appearance. Poor Wikus is in the wrong place at the wrong time and after being sprayed by a substance within a mysterious alien artifact, he starts going through a transformation that brings him closer to the slum residents.
Certainly, “District 9” is trying to do for alien invasion movies what Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did for the zombie genre, and it’s an effort that mostly works thanks to the fascinating way the alien creatures are depicted, putting them into human terms as scavengers living in a “Favela”-like slum where crime and corruption run rampant. Blomkamp uses the WETA resources provided by producer and presenter Peter Jackson to create well-crafted CG creatures with real weight and depth, though they sometimes veer into cheesy “oh, look how adorable we can make these ugly creatures” territory that made the “Star Wars” prequels grueling at times.
The other major problem is that Blomkamp tries way too hard to be edgy and original using an assortment of storytelling and filmmaking approaches to mix things up, whether it’s the aforementioned doc stylings to telling the story via security cameras and the like. It’s not something that often works if not done right, as seen by the similar approach used by Brian De Palma in his attempt at an Iraq docudrama with “Redacted.”
In Copley, Blomkamp has a stronger lead actor than anyone in De Palma’s failed experiment, but by the time we’re well into Wikus’ story arc, the movie keeps cutting to the news reporting on the events in District 9. By that point, this conceit has become distracting and it greatly detracts from the focus that’s been established in Wikus’ journey. There’s also some serious tonal issues throughout the movie as it begins with a serious doc, then gets lighter with Copley constantly hamming it up for the cameras, then turning into terror, before the movie devolves into a wild third act shoot-out, proving that action and FX are clearly Blomkamp’s forte, rather than bringing out consistent performances from his cast.
The Bottom Line:
It’s far too easy to go overboard with praise for Blomkamp’s debut only because we don’t see movies like this often – Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” might be the most recent example of this type of epic sci-fi with intelligence but from a filmmaker with far more experience. Instead, “District 9” is more in the vein of entertaining summer fare exemplified by Verhoeven in his heyday, one of the better studio debuts by a new filmmaker made more impressive by the limited resources at hand. For that reason, Blomkamp’s next step as a filmmaker will be one to watch very closely.